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Cornell University

Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition

Rediscovering Resilient and Sustainable Food Systems in India’s Santhal Parganas Region

Cooked rice and vegetables on a leaf

When one-third of the world’s population went into lockdown in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, challenges of global food security came to the fore. In India, the country-wide lockdown threatened the entire food system. Disrupted food production and supply chains induced by an external shock in the form of the pandemic exposed multiple vulnerabilities and cracks in contemporary food systems. Rural areas and marginal communities in the country bore the disproportionate brunt of it. During the first wave of the pandemic, a survey done by the Azim Premji University across 12 major states in India found that 73 percent of households in rural areas reported having consumed less food than before and 35 percent did not have enough money to buy even a week’s worth of essentials. This challenge seemed especially pertinent for the tribal population of the Santhal Parganas region in the rural and remote pockets of eastern India. However, for some Santhal communities in rural Bihar, this shock enabled communities to rediscover more resilient and sustainable food systems.

The southern part of the state of Bihar is home to Santhal Adivasi communities and is culturally linked with the Santhal Parganas region of the neighboring state of Jharkhand. The region lies at the heart of a biodiverse ecosystem with socially and economically marginalized and disadvantaged rural communities. With limited alternative livelihood opportunities other than out-migrating to urban areas for semi-skilled work, 70 percent of these Santhals (as this tribal community is called) are small and marginal landholders involved in subsistence farming which fails to make them food secure, let alone provide nutrition security.

The sudden lockdown induced by the first wave of the pandemic not only led to the unanticipated closing of the local haats (hatias) in these rural and remote areas, it also caused delays in receiving state support. A Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) Survey was conducted on an Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) with over 500 Santhals in this region during the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic in 2020 by PRADAN’s Research Wing. The survey found that 62 percent of the respondents ate less than they thought they should and 47 percent were worried they would not have enough food to eat due to lack of money or other resources. Moreover, the lockdown coincided with the start of the rainy season in these regions, impeding sowing and transplanting activities.

What changed during the lockdown was that community patterns of production and consumption were oriented less towards markets and more towards their own subsistence.

However, as the monsoon season approached, forests were ripe with green leafy vegetables, wild mushrooms, and roots and tubers which are known to be extremely rich in micronutrients. Therefore, communities that could have been left extremely vulnerable due to limited access to markets and social protection instead had access to more nutritious food items that were typically a more neglected source. What changed during the lockdown was that community patterns of production and consumption were oriented less towards markets and more towards their own subsistence.

Beyond ensuring food sustenance, this brought about an unexpected realization among the Santhalis of the value of the traditional food items and practices followed by their ancestors. This enabled Santhals to regain social control over the food that they were consuming and return to their traditional practice of foraging for diverse kinds of foods in their local forests.

The FAO-HLPE report of 2017 defines food systems as constituting all the elements (environment, people, processes, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. Of the various elements in the food system, the discourse on nutrition and food security typically focuses on agriculture and food production as the primary pathway to achieving various UN Sustainable Development Goals. Agriculture has long been the focus of policymaking in India, a necessary approach given that 70 percent of the country’s rural population engaged in agriculture as a primary subsistence activity.

However, the current policy framework proposes a monolithic and universal model of agriculture to address hunger (and thus nutrition), which leaves little autonomy for rural communities to choose the kind of crops to grow and account for indigenous practices.

Particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic, building resilience into our food systems is critical and community knowledge needs to be integrated into this discussion.

Questions of what crops are grown, who decides what is produced, and who is able to consume these outputs are among the key questions that emerge in research on pathways to nutrition in India. A critical part of this framework that often goes unnoticed are the pathways beyond agriculture that are essential in shaping nutrition outcomes. Such pathways that advocate adopting a holistic food systems lens can help to analyze how the various elements of a food system interact with one another and with the environmental, social, political, and economic contexts.

The diversity of food systems in India has been gradually undermined by state policies and economic frameworks that emphasize production for markets. These existing frameworks need to be made more democratic to recognize the value of indigenous knowledge and practices in improving nutrition levels. Particularly in light of the ongoing pandemic, building resilience into our food systems is critical and community knowledge needs to be integrated into this discussion.

With the support of the Global Research Translation Award and the University of East Anglia UK, our work at PRADAN explores how indigenous food systems can be built upon in order to develop resilient, sustainable, and inclusive food systems in rural India. Tribal communities are known to retain the knowledge of the food resources rooted in historical continuity, foods that are documented as having high nutritive value and adding diversity to local food systems

Our work is also centered around building the capacity of the local Santhali youth in these regions to use creative learning practices such as participatory filmmaking, participatory theatre, photo-voice, comic books, mud-wall paintings, songs, stories, and virtual platforms such as the Interactive Voice Response System to document their traditional knowledge systems and create a repository. This participatory process of reconnecting communities with their inter-generational knowledge systems and starting to consume forgotten, micronutrient-rich, diverse diets has the potential to be transformative and end malnutrition and hunger in these regions.

Arundhita Bhanjdeo is a researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit of Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), one of the foremost rural development organizations in India. She is currently working as a postdoctoral research associate in the TIGR2ESS project and on a sustainable food systems project funded by GRTA.

Ayesha Pattnaik is a research associate at PRADAN. She holds a master’s degree in sociology from the London School of Economics. Her research interests span rights and policy. She tweets at @ayeshapattnaik.

Featured image: A Santhali plate prepared with locally available foods during COVID. Except for oil and spices, all other food items are produced or foraged. (Photo by Shuvajit Charkraborty/PRADAN)