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Migrating towards hunger

By Maheen Mirza

Before they migrated to the city, the Gond adivasis had a plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables that grew wild. Now they make do with street food, packaged food like biscuits and gutka to dull the hunger pangs. The second in this series looks at how migration impacts the food and nutritional status of the urban poor

Kochai Aji
Kochai Aji a resident of the Gond pocket of Ganga Nagar

Kochai Aji is in a foul mood. The drain in the colony in front of the Ganga Nagar basti or slum where she lives has been cleaned and all the filth dumped in front of people’s homes. This will soon attract an army of flies, mosquitoes and other vermin that will cause a spate of illnesses especially among children in the basti. Any money the people may have saved will go towards doctors’ bills and on the tablets and injections which will put them on their feet instantly, something they need so that they can get back to work quickly even if it leaves them feeling weak and thin. Not a single day of rest to allow the body to heal and get back its strength. Where is the time? Every day's wage is every day's food. No one uses the old ways of healing any more. In any case, where will they get the herbs and roots from? They left all that, along with the knowledge to use it, back in the forests. Kochali Aji frowns as she tries to recall when she actually came to settle in Bhopal. “It was a little before the gas leak,” she says eventually. A road and a tank were being built for the fisheries department at Itarsi and they heard there was work in Bhopal. So they came here.

The city is always full but its people are always hungry 

Madhya Pradesh has a relatively large and growing urban population. According to the last census (2001), nearly 27% of the state’s population, which amounts to approximately 16 million people, live in Class 1 towns (towns with a population over 100,000). Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, houses 14,33,875 of them. It has seen a massive increase in its urban population in the past few decades. People have come into the city looking for better livelihood opportunities owing to decreasing employment opportunities in agriculture and its related sectors, restrictions on the use of forests and the burst of infrastructure development in urban zones.  

The high growth rate is expected to continue, with the urban population rising by a further 50% to over 25 million people by 2021, says the Madhya Pradesh Human Development Report (2007). It also states that there is clear evidence from the in-migrating pattern that the population residing in slums is increasing. This population will increase if the current rate of urbanisation remains the same or increases, and very little is happening by way of provision of low-cost housing for migrating populations which have no recourse except slums given their income levels. 

While income opportunities themselves may be higher in urban areas, this does not necessarily improve the status of food security of the migrating populations who constitute a major proportion of the urban poor in cities like Bhopal.  

We look at communities residing in two bastis of Bhopal – Ganga Nagar and Gautam Nagar -- to understand how migration influences food security. 

Residents of the Ojha Gond Community
Residents of the Ojha Gond Community from Betul, now residents of Gautam Nagar

Loss of community systems of managing food 

Located at one end of Ganga Nagar is a small pocket of about 120 Gond adivasi households who settled here about 30 years ago. Originally from Chhattisgarh, this close-knit community usually travels in search of work as a group or clan comprising about 20-30 members. None of the members of this community owned any land. Till as far back as they can remember they have travelled from place to place in search of work before eventually settling in Bhopal. They specialised in landscaping and levelling land, making it into a field fit for agriculture or for the construction of roads etc. They also made ponds for nistaari (communal water reservoir) and machchali palan (fishing).  

“We took up both private and government work. Some members of the community would be sent out to scout for work and negotiate a deal. This could be in villages – in the fields of the big landlords or with thekedaars (contractors),” recalls Chandrakala, one of the older members of the Gond adivasi community in Ganga Nagar. They would then settle near the place of work making small temporary accommodations with bamboo, straw, hardened mud and other locally available material. Sometimes they would remain in a place for six to eight months, sometimes even a year, depending on the amount of work. They tried not to travel during the rains. 

The community worked for both foodgrain and money as remuneration, as daily or weekly wage earners. At times when they had to work on agricultural land, they were given the produce of the land. For government work they were paid in grains and sometimes money, but they preferred the latter because “there was no trusting the quality of the thekedaar's grain”, chuckles an elderly resident.  

The community had a unique system of distributing its remuneration. When the payment (grain or money) was received, it was collected in one place and then redistributed to each family depending on the number of members. The lines between households and families were not clearly drawn. “Everyone was related because we have common ancestors.” All people of the community were considered extensions of the same family. Additional food or money was given to those households where there were ill people or pregnant or lactating women.  

“This system was not without its faults,” Chandrakala admits. “There was always some politics or the other about who got a better deal. If it got out of hand some sayane log would intervene and manage the situation. But the good thing was that no one went hungry.” 

And now? “Now it is very different. In the city it is each to his own. There is no need for levelling fields any more. For roads they use a machine to determine its slope and level. It is not possible to find work for so many people at once. Even if there is work for a group, only six or eight people will be hired at a time.”  

Most people from this community are daily wage earners involved in digging and laying of cables and pipelines. Some of the younger boys work in shops or wayside eateries. In any case, the earlier system of collecting and redistribution finds no takers. With daily wages as low as Rs 60 a day, and the price of food items being so high, there is hardly any scope for the community to look after its own.  

 Gutka shop
Gutka, Sweety, tambaku always available, always accessible

Shift in dietary patterns  

In cities, the type or quantity of food people are used to may not be available or affordable. As a result people have lost many food components without being able to replace them. This is typical of communities that have come into urban areas – a systematic decrease in the variety and quantity of food consumption. 

“For vegetables we had karmata, sunsunia and nonia which we got from lakes and ponds. During winter, there was methi and channa bhajji from nearby fields. There was also pitwaa (gongura) which grew wild. Then the forest has many wild fruits – amla, chaar, ber, gums, tubers, medicinal herbs, mahua and tendu. These children here have not tasted even half of these things,” complains Chandrakala. 

While some of these foods are still available, they come at a cost which the people here can afford only occasionally. Sometimes they buy them but mostly they have disappeared from their diet. Other foods they are used to are not available in city markets, so that has vanished too.  

The urban poor tend to buy food on a per day, per meal basis and more than 60% of the income they earn as daily wage is spent on food. They often end up paying more for food than their wealthier urban counterparts, as they do not have the money, resources or living conditions that permit them to purchase and store large quantities of food at home. 

The other settlement, Gautam Nagar, has lost several children to malnutrition in the past five years. Some 50-60 households of the Ojha (Gond) adivasi community have settled here on a 2,500-3,000 sq ft plot. The only meal in the day is cooked in the evening. After selling the waste they collect during the day, they buy the raw materials for their meal. The younger children from the basti beg for money and food or forage in the wastebins kept outside large eating places and survive off this for most part of the day.  

Tara, a resident of Gautam Nagar says, “We buy only as much as we eat. If we try to keep it for tomorrow the rats will get it or someone else will. Among our community, it is considered very bad to not give when you have. So if I have some extra and my neighbour asks me then I will give it and it will anyway not be there for me tomorrow morning.”  

“Earlier the children were always chewing on something or the other – ber, amla, imli… Now they are looking for money to go to a shop and buy Sweety (sweet flavoured beetlenut) or a toffee which finishes in less that a minute,” says Sarsati of Ganga Nagar.  

A meal now consists of rice, chutney made from roasted tomatoes, some daal (though this too has decreased since the prices have shot up) and the skin or intestines of chicken which is currently less expensive than any vegetable. This they eat once a day. In the morning they buy a samosa or poha, biscuit (for the younger children) and tea.  

Gutka and tambaku, both derived from tobacco, have replaced all other types of food. Most people are aware that this reduces their appetite and often use it as a means to postpone hunger till they become habituated to it. Then it doesn't matter. 

Cleaning the feathers off chicken
Cleaning the feathers off chicken skin for the evening meal

Decreased nutritional content  

Most food eaten by communities before they migrated to the city was in raw and semi-cooked form. This ensured that a large amount of its nutrient value including fibre, iron, minerals etc was intact.

“The amount of food has also changed and the type of food also has changed. Earlier raw food was an integral part of our diet. We only cooked rice and dried fish or vegetables once a day, and had bajra or jowar ki roti with chutney the rest of the time. Now it is mostly cooked food and packet food,” says Kochai Aji.  

In Gautam Nagar people usually eat the skin, head, claws and intestines of chicken as a staple along with roti or rice. While this may fill the stomach, its nutritional content is very little.  

Restrictions of space and time also play a role in people’s eating habits. Living in small clusters, in temporary shelters made from cardboard, tin, plastic and other temporary material, there is hardly any space to prepare cooked food inside or outside the home. Working throughout the day does not allow for the time required to prepare a meal. Therefore processed and semi processed food form a large segment of the diet of the urban poor and they have come to rely heavily on this. 

Street food is consumed at least once a day in the form of samosa and tea in the morning. While this kind of food may provide some amount of energy, it has poor nutritional value. Poor nutrition makes the body extremely vulnerable to illnesses and in no condition to handle special health conditions like pregnancy and produce healthy children. Almost all the children born in the past year in the basti at Ganga Nagar are underweight in varying degrees. 

Unable to access natural sources of nutrition migrating communities become completely dependent on government services for food. But the Public Distribution System (PDS), which has been set up specifically for this purpose, does not deliver. Besides being fraught with corruption, over the years it has become so feeble and selective that it is neither able to provide the poor with adequate food of some quality or food of their choice.  

Accessing the service is itself fraught with problems. Acquiring a ration card is a tedious and time consuming procedure. When people do manage to get a card, they can use it only in the place where it has been issued, and at the fair price shop where it is registered. For migrating communities this is useless as they are always on the move. So these communities, who are perhaps the poorest, are forced to buy from the market where the price of food is most expensive.  

Members of the Ojha Gond Community of Gautam Nagar
Members of the Ojha Gond Community of Gautam Nagar

The other problem is that the PDS provides fixed amounts of certain commodities. There is no flexibility or space to exercise preference in the kind of grain that is supplied. For example, three kilos of rice at Rs 3 per kilo and 32 kilos of subsidised wheat is provided to people with the Antyodaya ration card. Those communities (especially adivasis) who prefer rice to wheat have to buy rice at Rs 18 a kilo from the open market as the small quantum of rationed rice lasts for just two or three days.  

“See, all of us are rice eaters. The 32 kg of wheat we get on our card is useless for us. If the ration shop gives us rice instead of wheat, it would be a big saving for us,” says a resident of Ganga Nagar.  

Traditional food practices tend to have some balance as far as nutrition components are concerned and are derived from the local environment. It is not possible to maintain this diet in urban settings because the foods may be unavailable or too expensive.  

The loss to migrant communities has been on several levels. Most poor communities feel alienated from the urban setting and there is always a feeling of not being accepted. Adjusting to the city means losing any expression of diversity and with it any pride or dignity in community identity. These communities are usually lumped into one homogeneous segment called ‘the poor' and are viewed negatively. The city finds no use for their skills other than manual labour, and has no space or respect for their knowledge and lifestyle. Moreover, it provides them no services or support systems. It neither allows them to maintain their traditional support systems which could help them to weather crises in food, health, security, identity or livelihood, nor does it provide them with the basic means to partake in, and benefit from, city life.  

(Maheen Mirza works in Bhopal and researches and documents social issues. This is the second in her series on nutrition among the urban poor in Bhopal, which has been researched on an Infochange Media Fellowship 2009)   

Infochange News & Features, March 2010