Millennium Post

No meat, more wheat

Poor financial conditions and reliance on public distribution system are the key factors driving dietary shift among tribals — affecting their protein and calorie intake

No meat, more wheat

There has been a dietary shift among the Bhil and Bhilala tribes of Madhya Prasesh's Alirajpur and Jhabua districts over the years. Loss of dietary diversity, including little or no consumption of meat, as well as a change in their staple cereal, may impact the health and erode traditional knowledge of the tribals in the country's largest state, said experts.

This change in their diet started about 15 years ago or so, according to ChildFund India. "There has been a shift away from consuming bajra and jowar towards wheat. Many families have also stopped consuming meat," a representative of the organisation told Down to Earth (DTE).

A variety of factors contributed to this change: Poor financial conditions, move to cultivation of crops perceived to be more profitable and dependence on the public distribution system (PDS).

The families from Bhil and Bhilala tribes visited by this reporter in Chhapri, Nawapara and Golabadi villages in Jhabua as well as Ringol and Sejawada in Alirajpur didn't consume any meat at present.

Historically, these tribes have been meat-eating and would prefer a non-vegetarian diet, a 2009 study by the National Institute of Research in Tribal Health (NIRTH) showed. "But now its consumption is about 2-3 times in a month and / or limited to ceremonies and festivals due to poor economic conditions."

Protein intake decreased by three grams per consumption unit per day (g / CU / day) among India's Scheduled Tribe population between the second (1988-90) and the third (2008-09) National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) surveys.

The proportion of the population consuming an adequate diet in terms of protein, energy and calories remained low — 29-32 per cent of children of different age groups, 63-74 per cent adults as well as 25 per cent pregnant and lactating women.

But there has been one other significant change in their diet: The staple cereal.

Laddo Hatila, a resident of Ringol village in Alirajpur district, would start her day as the sun rose and start grinding bajra. The millet would be cultivated in the land behind her house and the flour would be used to make chapatis for the family throughout the day. But this was 40 years ago.

"It was extremely strenuous but it made my arms strong. Now, we just show our below-poverty-line card and buy wheat from the local markets," she said.

Today, their diet primarily consists of wheat, dal and rice for those who can afford it, and the occasional seasonal vegetables. Consumption of millets and cereals decreased by some 50 g / CU / day, Vitamin A intake decreased by 117 microgram / CU / day and energy intake came down by 150 kilocalories / CU / day, between the two NNMB studies.

Low opportunity cost

Money is a key push factor for this shift. Those who used to cultivate and sell the indigenous crops realised there is little demand for it. Thus, they made the shift towards cultivating wheat, soybean and other vegetables.

Dr Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, professor and head of community nutrition at the Public Health Foundation of India, noted, "Owing to the opportunity costs of accessing natural food environments, climate change, migration of family members, poverty and other factors, compared to historical times, India's tribal communities are relying more on market foods over foods from natural food sources."

They are accessing poor quality, cheaper sources of calories with poor nutrient density from open markets and other monotonous food sources that are part of the government food security programmes, she added. "So, despite living in biodiverse regions, the communities are malnourished and have poor health."

PDS is among the many factors that caused a dietary change in India's tribal communities, said Dr Hemalatha R, the director of the National Institute of Nutrition under the ICMR.

The universal PDS did not culturally adapt to the diets of the indigenous people, according to Adivasi communities and researchers working in the field. "This is also to blame for poor health indicators. But people are cautious to say so since the PDS is a lifeline because it at least prevents hunger," Prashanth N Srinivas, a researcher working on tribal health inequities at the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru, told DTE.

For some tribal communities in the two districts, the reason for moving away from meat was their faith.

The Sanskritisation of the tribal community plays an important role in how their diet, and therefore their health, is changing, said Sachin Jain, a food rights activist associated with Vikas Samvad Human Development Resource Organisation. "There is a growing trend of adopting cultures of the brahmanical system. One such example is vegetarianism," he added.

Yogesh Jain, a pediatrician and founding member of Jan Swasthya Sahyog and Sangwari, a public health initiative based in rural Chhattisgarh, highlighted a salient point triggered by the Green Revolution.

In the last 30 years, land fit for millet cultivation has been used for wheat and rice because the government supported it, he said. "The access to millets has declined so much that several young people can't even recognise many types of millets."

Role of forests

More than half the tribal population in the country has moved out of their traditional habitats, the 2018 'Tribal Health in India' report noted. A decline has also been recorded in the number of tribal cultivators — down by 10 per cent between the 2001 and 2011 Census. The number of agricultural labourers has gone up nine per cent during the same period.

Tribals in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Odisha — covered under the Fifth Schedule — "have also borne the maximum brunt of land alienation, displacement and poor compensation", a UNICEF statement noted.

The ad hoc way of implementing forest rights and the forest department's restrictive policies have also decreased the dependence of tribals on their lands and forest, Srinivas said.

The whole economic world around them has gone so far ahead that the only way to keep up is to depend on PDS and move into an income economy, vastly changing their diets, he added. DTE

Views expressed are personal

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