Shivani Unakar writes about the changing landscapes of Kutch, taking a closer look at the repercussions of turning one of India's most arid regions into greener pastures.
There isn’t a single place on Earth that doesn’t posses some form of traditional food; even a barren desert growing nothing more than shrubs and grasses.
Historically, that’s all there was to Kutch. A 350 kilometer-long coastline of Arabian sea to the south, the vast Rann or desert in the north, and the Banni grasslands between. Summer temperatures in this district, even today, average 41°C and can touch 50°C, making it one of the hottest regions in India. Winters can see the mercury dropping below 0°C.
Kutch, in Gujarat, is the largest district in India. It is a fairly low-lying region, and consequently, during the Indian monsoon, some regions become partially submerged by the saline backwaters of the Indus River that flow into the Arabian Sea. For the rest of the year, it remains a dry desert. Until a few decades ago, the land didn’t support much vegetation. Yet, people there, like in any other part of the world, had to eat.
Studying traditional food practices in the Kutch region, my father and I spent days driving through the district with Nihalbhai, our friend and guide, visiting families, farms and markets. We visited the homes of his friends and acquaintances; all of whom invited us to home-cooked meals, offering insight into the culinary practices of the region.
Parmaben, 82, from Kukma village, remembers life in Kutch from her youth: preparing food took up large parts of their days, and was often a challenging task. People had to work hard and smart when it came to food resources, in order to feed their families through the dry seasons. Meals were fairly simple, and made the best use of the limited grains and vegetables available. The luxury of perennial irrigation was still several decades away, and farming was restricted to the rainy season, yielding an annual harvest just enough for one family. This kind of farming — dependant solely on unpredictable rains — was called sukki kheti (dry farming), and practiced by every family that owned even a small patch of land.
Whatever food the family grew during the rains would then be preserved, to be consumed through the rest of the year. Vegetables would be dried to make sukhawani — either sun-dried or shade-dried. The latter took longer, but was preferred, as it better preserved flavour and nutrition. This store of vegetables would be portioned out judiciously on special occasions, until the next harvest rolled around.
Traditional knowledge of locally grown food was ubiquitous among the older generation: the consumption of bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum millet), the two staple grains of the region, were guided by the inherent understanding of nutrition. Bajra, a heat-generating food, was traditionally eaten in the winter, and jowar, a food that cooled the body, was consumed in the summer.
Knowledge about wild plants too, was commonplace; deemed necessary in order to forage for edible plants in the desert or grasslands to supplement the domestic food crops from sukki kheti. For example, jungli karela, delicious wild bitter gourd, is often collected for dinner, while jungli ringna, wild eggplant, is considered poisonous. On the highway, Nihalbhai stopped the car to point out both plants, growing right next to each other, their creepers almost intertwined. He could tell them apart without a second glance. But this kind of knowledge is now rare; lost and forgotten within the younger generations.
Another interesting plant is the prickly baranth grass. With thorns on its stem, leaves, and on its burrs (inside which it’s seeds are stored), the grass is actually a source of wild grain. Villagers would often scout the grasslands to find this grass among several varieties of similar-looking wild grass. Then, a piece of cloth is gently brushed over the grass to collect the thorny burrs, which are carried back to the village.
The burr is pounded to free the tiny black seeds within. These seeds are then used like most other grains — ground to a flour and made into flatbread, or cooked with split mung beans to make khichdi. Wild grasses produce just a fraction of the seeds that domesticated grain crops do, so this painstaking process of collection is repeated for days before sufficient stores are built up. Parmaben tells me with disappointment that barely anyone knows the taste of baranth anymore, and nobody wants to go to such lengths to collect such little grain.
As for locally grown vegetables, they are limited in variety: garlic, chillies and onions are the mainstay. Arjunbhai Vankar, a weaver in the central Kutchi town of Bhujodi and my host one evening, explains that they are important in a Kutchi meal. “Traditionally, with no curries to accompany the jowar or bajra flatbread, these vegetables not only added flavour, but also activate the saliva and digestive juices.” After this, fiery tongues are soothed with gol (jaggery) and chhaas (buttermilk).
In the last three decades, the local food habits in Kutch have evolved dramatically. Rice, a water-intensive grain, once a luxury only the wealthy could afford to bring in from other states, is now available at the corner kirana shops. A wide range of vegetables are available with the local pushcart vendors, who purchase them from the wholesale yard of the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) in Anjar, a town in the southern region of Kutch district.
A few conversations with local farmers and merchants at the APMC yard reveal just how much of an agricultural and dietary shift the district has seen in recent times. The government of Gujarat is strongly pushing agriculture. Among other efforts, they have improved irrigation facilities and provided subsidised electricity for water pumps. The digging of bore wells, pumping of groundwater and building of an extensive network of irrigation pipes to supply water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam built on the Narmada River, agriculture has boomed in Kutch. In the last 3 decades, the landscape of Kutch has transformed, quite literally, to greener pastures.
Vegetables of all kinds, oil seeds like peanut and castor, a variety of pulses and grains and several export-quality fruits are being cultivated in Kutch today. Not long ago, wealthier merchants would procure fruits and vegetables from other states to sell at the APMC yard. Today, almost everything that the district could desire can be grown locally. Pomegranates grown in Kutch are sold all the way in Punjab, one of the most fertile states, and once the agricultural hub of India.
Dates and Kesar mangoes are cultivated specifically with export in mind. The Department of Agriculture has set up labs to conduct research on grafting and cloning of the best date varietals. When I visited a few mango orchards, it was hard to believe I was standing in the desert district of Gujarat.
Agriculture has evolved from a subsistence practice of sukki kheti to lucrative commercial production of a variety of foreign crops. At the Anjar APMC yard, Pappubhai Sahdev Singh Jadeja, a vegetable merchant, described the farmer-merchant trade relationship that has completely changed. “Two decades ago, merchants would approach farmers for supply, promising good sales returns. Today, farmers harvest huge volumes and flock to the market to look for merchants to sell their produce.” Farmers are pleased with this change. In fact, so are many among the younger generations of Kutchis. With increasing ease of access to a more colourful diet, they have no complaints. To them, it reflects progress, and a better quality of life. With rice, wheat and pulses available locally for purchase, why would anyone want to spend days in the hot grasslands collecting baranth? With capsicum, cauliflower and tomato available at the local market, they no longer need to be able to tell the wild bitter gourd apart from the poisonous wild eggplant.
While younger Kutchis celebrate the food revolution, the older generation, like Parmaben and Arjunbhai Vankar’s parents, mourn the disappearance of older food habits. Feeding the family was not always easy, they say, but there was always sukh (a sense of satisfaction), at the end of a meal. They still swear by the old practices, insisting that it demanded a taakat (strength) that kept the body strong and free of ailments. Perhaps their advanced age is living proof of this belief.
But, arid and low-lying, Kutch is like a saucer. Precipitation drains slowly towards the sea. Pumping groundwater for agriculture has slowly resulted in the absorption of saline water from the large surrounding coastline. Technology may have enabled the greening of Kutch, but imposing a land use that the region is unsuited to, is inherently unsustainable in the long run. What will happen when the land is too wasted to support the lush farms producing this array of foreign food? What becomes of the region’s new diet, and the forgotten indigenous knowledge of the land? Are new food choices, created by greater availability of resource, necessarily a step in the right direction? Especially when they come at the cost of a traditional food culture that has sustained people for centuries in a harsh geographical context.
Food culture is the defining component of any region or community’s identity. Should then, these dietary developments be celebrated for bringing ease, greater nutrition and better quality of life to the land of Kutch? Or should they be condemned for the slow death of an age-old food culture? With rapid modernisation across India, especially rural India, this is a conundrum that we will probably realise the answer to sooner rather than later.
Shivani Unakar explores the traditional food cultures of India, especially in rural regions, where they are still alive in their authenticity. She was invited by Slow Food International to present at their conference, “We Feed The Planet” in 2015, to encourage the appreciation of diversity in India’s traditional food cultures. You can follow her at @shivaniunakar.
All images except banner by Shivani Unakar; banner image by Krishni Shroff
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