I don’t feel hungry: How food inflation is gnawing at Madhya Pradesh’s Sahariya tribe  

The Sahariya were always bedevilled by malnutrition; soaring food prices have made them extremely vulnerable

By Shagun
Published: Tuesday 17 May 2022
A malnourished child from the Sahariya village of Kohlapur in Shivpuri district, Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

The first few months of 2022 have seen food prices soar in India and across the globe, primarily due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Both belligerents supply a major portion of the world’s wheat, maize and sunflower.

India’s wholesale inflation rose to 15.08 per cent in April from 14.55 per cent in March, according to official data released May 17, 2022. The country has also recorded its highest retail inflation in nearly eight years on the back of higher fuel and food prices.

The rising food inflation is hurting the weakest the most in India. Down To Earth got a glimpse of this when it visited six villages in the Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh (MP), which borders eastern Rajasthan.

All the six villages were inhabited by the Sahariya Adivasis, who are classified as a ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group’ by the government. The Sahariya live in around eight districts of MP, including Shivpuri. Their population was 614,958 in the 2011 Census.

The tribe has been battling acute poverty and malnutrition for long. Now, the record increase in prices of food items means that basic staples like pulses and vegetables are out of their reach on most days, thus making them even more vulnerable

‘Nothing to eat’

Take for instance, Asharpi Adiwasi. On May 11, this reporter interacted with her after she had had her first meal of the day in Mohra village. Asharpi ate two wheat rotis (flatbread) with a pickle she had made from a small raw mango that her children found in the nearby jungle.

It didn’t taste good. “But we can’t eat dried rotis every day. So we have to make do with whatever we get,” her husband Shankar, said. The last time Asharpi and her family had a vegetable with rotis was two days ago, when she fried some onions for herself and family.

Before that, she had made chana dal or split chickpeas that she got from her parents’ house in Rajasthan. She had eaten it with rotis.

“I was visiting them and my brother’s wife insisted I take some dal with me to feed the family,” she said. Asharpi doesn’t remember the last time she made and ate a wholesome meal that included a nutritious vegetable, other than potatoes or onions, and pulses.

“There is no food item in the house. See for yourself,” she said, when asked whether there was any ration in the house.

Rajdhani, from another Sahariya village named Kohlapur, was three months into her pregnancy, when this reported visited her. That day, she was to eat food twice in one day after a long gap, thanks to a wedding in the village.

She could not recall exactly how many days but said it was definitely over 20-25 days since she consumed food more than once in a day. “There is nothing to eat,” she said. Two years ago, when Rajdhani was pregnant with her first child, she used to eat at least twice a day.

This reporter asked her how she coped with hunger and poor diets, especially when she was pregnant. Rajdhani looked at her mother Sheela and replied, “I don’t feel hungry.” 

All India average retail price unit (In Rs/kg)
Commodity Price as on May 17, 2022 Price as on May 17, 2021
Rice 35.82 36.81
Wheat 33.05 29.85
Masoor Dal (Red Lentil) 96.68 84.56
Mustard Oil 185.43 169.15
Soybean Oil 169.91 146.17
Potato 22.99 19.06
Onion 23.51 23.56
Tomato 43.75 17.89
Sugar 41.54 39.69
Salt 19.4 18

Source: Department of Consumer Affairs, Price Monitoring Cell

‘I don’t feel hungry’ is a common refrain among the Sahariya, especially among women. It is a stark reminder of the accepted reality of the community in which malnourishment is rampant.

People in these villages are able to afford potatoes or onions as the only vegetables and that too a few times in a week. They eat pulses, mostly chana dal, hardly 4-5 times in a month.

“Earlier, we were able to procure bottle, snake and bitter gourd as well as okra; not every day but we used to manage a few times during the week. But now, these vegetables are around Rs 60 per kilogram. We can only buy potatoes,” 52-year-old Siya Ram, another resident of Rajdhani’s village, said.

Villagers also pluck wild vegetables from the forest but those will only grow after the monsoon. In 2017, the MP government started a scheme especially for tribal communities.

Households were to get Rs 1,000 per month for vegetables, milk and fruits, as part of the scheme. However, everyone in the six villages said they had stopped receiving the amount two to three months ago.

Hungry stomachs

The Sahariya migrate to work as agricultural labourers in different areas of MP, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh during the sowing and harvesting seasons of paddy, wheat, mustard and potato.

During the remaining 6-7 months, they try to live off their earnings or try to find work in their villages. Many pluck tendu leaves during May. But for others, there are limited sources of livelihood.

Siya Ram has 12 members in his family to feed, including three small children, all below five years of age. They all have to make do with just dry wheat rotis for at least 10-12 days in a month.

Wheat is the only grocery item that most households have in their houses currently. Each family gets 35 kg of ration under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) — 25 kg wheat and 10 kg rice.

“The wheat gets over in 10-12 days. We get rice too but we don’t feel like eating. What should we eat it with,” Shankar, who has a family of eight to feed, said.

Shankar and Asharpi (on the right). Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

They mostly don’t receive other items like sugar, salt and kerosene oil, which they are supposed to under the NFSA.

Most labourers now take wheat or mustard and potato (depending on which crop field they till as labourers) as their earnings. They use that for buying essentials like salt, oil and vegetables.

“Earlier, a kg of wheat would fetch us a kg of vegetables. Now, due to inflation, we get only half a kg of vegetables for one kg of wheat,” Sheela and Kasturi, another villager, said in unison.

Siya Ram said the family earlier used to buy two litres of cooking oil for one month. But now, they can afford only a litre.

“Refined oil is now Rs 200 per litre. It was Rs 120 two years ago. Prices have increased but our incomes have remained what they were two years ago. In fact, they got reduced for many of us,” he added.

Many households here used to have cattle and water buffaloes till three years ago and sometimes used to drink milk. But a boundary wall made by the forest department in the nearby pasture made it difficult for them to afford cattle anymore.

“We are not in a position to buy fodder for them and so had to let the cattle go. Since then, we haven’t had or seen milk,” 55-year-old Barhe Lal, said.

Households which didn’t have livestock, traditionally had never seen milk in their life. Most said they were not able to access it because there was no milk supplier nearby. The only time a person consumes milk here is when s/he is a new-born. 

Residents of Upsil village scoffed when asked about how often they consumed vegetables or pulses.

“I got 50 grams of dal for Rs 10 yesterday. We had to put a lot of water in it so that the whole family can have some,” Pramod Adiwasi, who has nine members in his family, including three children, said.

“Earlier, we used to have pearl millet roti with green leafy vegetables and some seasonal vegetables. But now, everything is unaffordable,” he says.

Food inflation has made a serious dent on their diets. Ajay Yadav, who has been working with the tribals for the last 20 years and is also the district coordinator of Vikas Samvad Samiti, said:

The people of the community are already malnourished and the rising costs of food have made them more vulnerable. This has also led to an increase in cases of tuberculosis, which is directly linked to malnutrition. In the last two years, we have had a higher incidence of TB cases.

Shyam Adiwasi from Baisora village has a much bigger problem. The Antyodaya Anna Yojana ration card is in his wife’s name and he is not being able to add his or his children’s name to it.

Last time, the family got only 19 kg wheat instead of 25 kg. He has a five-month-old child who is constantly crying.

“The days are lengthening. The kids feel hungrier. But what can we do? When we are not able to afford vegetables or pulses, we just eat rotis twice a day,” he said.

As he talked, a watermelon seller came on this motorbike to the village and hawked his wares. A woman asked the price. It was Rs 40 per kg. She went back to what she was doing. “This is a luxury for us,” Shyam said.

None of the six villages had a fully functional anganwadi, which is supposed to provide cooked meals to children and lactating and pregnant mothers.

In two villages, the anganwadis were shut. For example, in Upsil, it has been three years since the anganwadi catered to the children of the village. In the rest, the anganwadis were distributing packaged food once a week, as opposed to hot, cooked meals.

“Two years ago, wages were less but the situation was better than what it is today. Now, we get Rs 200 per day and the earning members are also more. But we still can’t fill the stomachs of our families. Two years ago, we were able to feed our families in a single person’s income,” Suresh, a resident of Mohra village, summed up the food inflation crisis.

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