Savitri and Nuari Mallik, who are in their sixties and break stones for a living, their daughters, daughters-inlaw and grandchildren also start their day with fermented rice, salt and chillies, a common breakfast combination in rural Odisha, but not much is added to their diet for lunch or dinner. “We try to eat hot cooked rice for lunch with some green leaves or saag or make some rice porridge. Occasionally, at night, we eat papaya or pumpkin with rice,“ says Nuari, who says she finds it nearly impossible to buy pulses. Dali or dal is a rarity in their meals, though dalma, a lentil soup with vegetables, is a popular, traditional accompaniment to rice in the region.
“We can’t afford to buy pulses. The government gives us rice for Rs 1 a kg but the quota of 25kg per family isn’t enough for our big families. We try to meet the gap with the rice we grow,“ explains Savitri, who belongs to the Kondh tribe, one of the largest indigenous groups in Odisha. They cannot afford oil either.
Despite living in the midst of lush forests -its variety of nutritious foods are out of bounds for them–and near fertile agricultural land, their diets are so skewed that it has prompted the Public Health Resource Network (PHRN) to work with women, block-level leaders and others to balance diets and explain why nutrition is important. “Earlier mandia (millet) was the staple food of the people of Kandhamal, but after rice became easily accessible and affordable, it has replaced millet,“ says PHRN coordinator Satya Narayan Patnaik.
Experts say millets disappeared from Kandhamal because there were no incentives for farmers growing millets and they are not part of the government’s procurement policy . According to a report by Nirman, an environmental NGO, Kandhamal’s soil and its dry , upland climate is best suited for millets.“But the government policy of land diversion to economic crop strategy“ has meant land under millet cultivation has been turned to vegetable and orchard development, according to the report. Food diversity is reducing steadily, a fact borne out by government data.While the annual per capita rice availability has increased from 58kg in 1951 to 69kg in 2012, pulse availability has fallen from 25kg per year in 1961 to 15kg in 2012, according to the department of agriculture.
“Malnutrition has a serious impact on health. There is data on high levels of anaemia, low body mass index among adults in India,“ says Dipa Sinha, an economist and right to food campaigner. According to FAO’s recent Food and Nutrition in Numbers report, there were 190.7 million “undernourished“ people in India in 2014, about five million more than 2002.
Despite several recommendations to include pulses in the public distribution system (PDS), the government has not done so or addressed the high inflation.“I think pulses and oils must be included in the PDS. We do not grow enough of either and depend on imports, and inflation is a huge issue, especially with regard to pulses,“ says Sinha. Prices of pulses have shot through the roof recently , with arhar selling at Rs 180 a kg, and urad at Rs 112 to Rs 136 per kg.
Ritika Khera, associate professor at IIT Delhi, refers to a 2009 study by economists Angus Deaton and Jean Dreze, which sums up the nutrition crisis in India: “The data indicate that, compared to Indians, Americans consume half the cereals, twice the vegetables, three times the fruit, four times the milk, and 25 times as much meat, while the Chinese consume slightly more cereals, more fruit, two-and-a-half times the vegetables, three times the starchy roots, and almost eight times as much meat as Indians.“ Khera’s point: If Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh can introduce oil and pulses in the PDS, why can’t the other states? “It’s a small measure but can give the poor access to diversity in food,“ she says.
(The field visits were supported by Centre for Science and Environment‘s media fellowship on Good Food)