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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project


Changing food consumption practices among the tribal youth in India is a recent phenomenon. Job prospects and new livelihood options are influencing many lifestyle changes. Changes in food consumption bear an impact on the health and well-being of the youth. Moreover, the decline of traditional ecological knowledge is a worrying trend from a sustainable food systems approach. Here, Dr Anuprita Shukla of Flagship Project 6 discusses her research focused on the tribal youth of Maharashtra.

In 2019, as part of my field work for TIGR2ESS, I conducted an intergenerational study in a remote tribal village of Jahagirdarwadi at the foothills of Kalsubai, the highest peak in Maharashtra, Western India. Through a series of in-depth interviews with young boys and girls, as well as the village elders, I uncovered an ongoing rapid transition in food and lifestyle choices, chiefly changes in food consumption practices.

I presented the preliminary findings at the international Gender, Adult Literacy and Active Citizenship for Social Transformation conference (GALACST 2019) in the Philippines. The findings are in line with much of the informal learning research around nutrition and impacts on the health and wellbeing of communities.

Change is everywhere in the villages of Maharashtra. Many people are migrating to urban areas to find better education and employment. Village farming communities are also increasingly exposed to urban life thanks to newfound ecotourism.

Young boys and girls now want to fit in with their new urban and cool peers. They try to emulate the urban youth’s style of dressing, mannerisms and modern lingo. While speaking about what changes occurred over the last five years in their community, one young male tourist guide remarked:

“Now I dress better, look cool and talk without my rural accent. Thanks to my business clients from Mumbai and other cities.”

Most of the educated youth are not interested in pursuing family farming in this village. Ecotourism-related livelihoods are fast emerging; tour guides, trek guides, renting camping gear, small food joints on the mountain slope, to name just a few.  

Ecotourism has led to mushrooming of small hotels and food joints that sell fast foods such as potato chips, biscuits, soda, concentrated juices and bottled water. It’s now fashionable to sip juice from a carton rather than to eat local fruits grown in their forests. Children demand Frooti, a mango drink in a carton, rather than eating actual mangoes, which are abundant in the area. The younger generation have stopped eating pumpkin and are drawn towards Pina coladas and cold beer, easily available in nearby metro cities.

Pumpkin - a nutritional powerhouse

Pumpkin, known locally as Lal Bhopala, is a nutrient dense, low calorie, antioxidant-rich vegetable packed with minerals and vitamins. It’s a rich source of Vitamin A (beta carotene), valued for its effectiveness in preventing eyesight problems, as well as potassium. Its seeds are great source of protein, fibre and iron as well.

Pumpkin is mainly a Kharif (monsoon) crop, but it’s also cultivated in summer, making it readily available. Generally, it’s eaten as a vegetable with spices such as mustard seeds, turmeric, paprika, coriander, with chapati or rice on the side. Its seeds are eaten raw or roasted, often stored after drying them in the sun.

If pumpkin is such a great source of nutrition, easily available and a traditional food basket item in the village, why are the youth ditching it?

Change agents

Ecotourism is not the only influence on the village. Accessible and affordable internet and smartphones are key drivers helping youth to transform. The young girls I spoke with used lots of English words. On asking why, they revealed they pick English up from their phones and the internet: “…We also love playing games on the phone. I often fight with my father and take his mobile to play games. He doesn’t know what I do”.     

The influence of urban life on rural youth is largely lifestyle related. There are, however, long-lasting implications for health and well-being. It’s now considered trendy amongst the youngsters of this village to consume alcohol and eat fried foods. Young females complained to me about rising addiction among male youth.

Malnutrition, in the form of undernutrition and micro-nutrient deficiency, and its health impacts, are physically visible in the tribal population in Jahagirdarwadi. Unhealthy diets, substance abuse, and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes are on the rise. Decreasing physical activity and increasingly watching TV is new thing among the young. The elders complained that younger people are lazy and very delicate: “They won’t step one foot outside house, they say it’s hot and sunny. All they want to do is watch TV and keep their faces buried in their phones”.

Speaking of reduced physical activity, one of the elderly male leaders shared:

“These days they are all najuuk (meaning delicate darlings, with a mocking tone), we used to climb the mountain four times a day and bring coal in gunny bags thrice our weight. They don’t make like us [sic] anymore.”

The village elders strongly disagree with the newfound idea of ‘partying’. The elders are not against the idea of socialising, but youth drinking alcohol whilst socialising is getting on their nerves.

Ganpati festival is a huge community celebration over a ten-day period in the village. People cook, eat, dance, pray together and lots of social events are organised. However, the elders complained that “Now our Ganapati drinks and gambles”. This is a vernacular way of saying that youth clubs who organise the Ganapati festival use the excuse to party and gamble. The notion of bad character and bad name in the social ranks also causes the elders to criticise the drinking culture amongst the youth.

Newfound freedom

Despite some resistance, the tribal youth are exercising their freedom of choice. Young women are thankful for changes of some social norms. They can now cook during menstruation, eat their choice of fast foods every weekend, and take advantage of Chinese food and ice-creams in new hotels. 

“If it’s tasty but bad for health people will eat it. No matter how beneficial to our health but [sic] if it’s not tasty, people will not eat it. …Many Ran Bhajya (wild foods) are highly nutritious ... People know this all but don’t lean towards these foods. They are interested in cooking chapati, dal and vegetables, fast food with it, more oil and spicy foods these days.”

But there’s a cost to this new-found freedom. Young males may get away with ‘partying’, but females must put up a tough fight when challenging dominant socio-cultural values. A young female shared how she disregards the social unwritten rule and dons her headphones when going to the field.

The social norms dictate that good girls in the village under no circumstances carry smartphones in their hand and are prohibited to wear headphones: “We can put the phones in our handbags though, but it’s bizarre don’t you think?”

Similarly, not wearing fashionable clothes such as jeans and t-shirts, leaving their hair open (un-braided) and talking to strangers (urban clientele of the ecotourism homestays) is prohibited for girls. These are new social norms. As older women shared, they didn’t face these challenges; there were no jeans in the local markets, and nobody came to their sleepy village.

Intergenerational blame game

During my fieldwork in Maharashtra, I spoke with young girls and boys about household food culture, traditional knowledge, and their attitudes towards elderly people. Crucially for my research, I asked these questions from a food security perspective.

Young girls and boys feel disillusioned and undervalued. They feel they have no voice in household decision making or within the community. Similar interviews with older men and women of the village uncovered a feeling of being alienated and that their knowledge is being dismissed.

But there are points of intergenerational convergence, not just conflicts, on issues of nutrition and health. Both generations equally shared concerns about excessive plastic waste in the village - a direct result of tourism - and its harmful effects on their immediate environment. Men and women, were united in preventing further soil degradation, reducing the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and taking efforts for water conservation. Both generations also shared their concerns over the deteriorating healthy culture. A young boy summarised the difference between the generations:

“In older days, elderly people even if they didn’t have nice clothes (good looking clothes), but they had good health, good climate, nutritious diet and fitness. Today people have nice and clean clothes but ill health and polluted environment.”

Food for thought

Food doesn’t only have nutritive value; it also has cultural value. Intergenerational sharing of knowledge and cultural values has implications for sustainable diets and sustainable food consumption. Shifting food consumption practices, urbanisation and lifestyle changes in tribal India therefore pose a serious threat to both community health and environmental sustainability.

Sustainable food systems need to account for the decline in uptake of traditional ecological knowledge and other socio-cultural determinants in quickly transitioning food consumption practices amongst the youth groups. This vision was endorsed by the UN in 2019 through its UN decade of Family Farming. Pillar two of this plan emphasises much-needed support for youth to ensure generational sustainability of family farming.       

Going forward, researchers have more to do to fully understand the drivers and impacts of changing lifestyles. What does intergenerational food knowledge sustain? Can intergenerational solidarity contribute towards achieving sustainable health goals? What are youth aspirations for better food security? My intergenerational research for TIGR2ESS will help answer these questions and, in time, hopefully address the issues arising from changing lifestyles and other socio-economic drivers of sustainable food systems.