Food Insecurity in Maharashtra

in Article
Published on: 21 November 2018

Ami Mishra

Ami Misra is the Communications Officer at Columbia Global Centres, Mumbai. She has worked as a Program Officer for a gender and nutrition research project based out of the Vidarbha region in Maharashtra at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).


Accessibility and Intersections


Caste, tribe and gender are the three main intersections that will be located in their alleged consequences on food insecurity in this essay. Deeply reflexive from somewhat outlying memory, the essay is based on field work undertaken in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Being denied access, production and consumption of food due to various levels of discrimination is an oppressive reality in India. While the essay attempts to locate the interplay of power relations, stratification, and their repercussions on food security; it is limited in the scope of its investigation. This is an essay in persuasion, urging further exploration and reflection on the subject.  


Discriminatory practices are innate in the prevalence of differences. Belonging then, to diverse sections, also affects consumption of food and other resources. Food is critical to the survival of human beings. Food security is contingent on three parameters – availability, accessibility and affordability (Krishnaraj 2005).


Johan Pottier highlights how ethnographic explorations into food security can begin with a deceptively simple question, drawing from policymakers’ primary concern of access to food, ‘how is food actually accessed in everyday life (Pottier 1999)?' Upon taking gestalt views of a typical village, from the two perspectives of households and hamlets, implicit differences in eating on the basis of caste, tribe and gender can be observed. People belonging to different communities are settled in designated hamlets, based on their affiliation to different social categories. Sometimes, programmes facilitated by the Government and markets act as mediators to facilitate confluence of different communities. At other times, differences in identity are points of departure.


Of hamlets


Bhutka Bai, a ninety year old woman belonging to the Banjara[1] tribe recounts how the staple diet of their community comprised breads made of Jowar and green chillies for most of her life. After decades of migration, on settling in Chincholi village, twenty five years ago, the tribe together discovered wheat, rice and vegetables. Settling meant gaining access to cultivable land for their community. The Marathas[2] did not allow Mahars[3] to cultivate food crops due to notions of purity and pollution. Suresh, a member of the Mahar community talked about how it was difficult for them to find work as agricultural labourers. He said that their traditional occupation involved cleaning the village of and skinning dead animals, which was considered ‘dirty’ by the villagers. When the Banjaras arrived, they were readily accepted as cheap labour and allowed to work on fields. This acceptance of the Banjara tribe could be attributed to their history of trading and seemingly ‘clean’ occupation and food habits. The socio-cultural acceptance of the Banjara community provided them with more opportunity for upward mobility and financial inclusion, in comparison to the Mahar community. In the year 1992, when village Chincholi was displaced under the Arunavart Dam project, and land was redistributed by the Government, the early settlers among the Banjara community were given small patches of cultivable land. However, caste based politics in this scenario ensured that the Dalits were still not given cultivable land. The lack of access to land implied food insecurity. The discrimination did not end here.


Today, the Dalit hamlet is located on marshiest piece of land in an interior part of the village. The houses in this hamlet are built in mud, have asbestos roofs and plastic sheets serve as floors for these houses. Families from this hamlet prefer migrating for work during the summers. The men and women from the hamlet spend their monsoons in places where they migrate for work to evade the suffering caused by the terrible condition of their houses. They migrate to urban areas to work in brick kilns, and quarrying/ construction sites. Most children from this community do not go to school because of their erratic habitat situation caused by distress migration. In the time that they spend at the village, they make brooms from a forest plant called Sindori; some of them are still responsible for sweeping and picking carcasses of dead animals in the village. Notwithstanding the dearth of other resources, the Dalit hamlet has a water facility with a functional hand pump. Sunita, a 70-year-old woman, residing in the hamlet says that the hand pump was provided to them for as long as she could remember. She says people from other communities never visit the hamlet and only gave them this hand pump so that their own water remains ‘untouched.’


What do the Dalits of Chincholi eat these days? While the elders of the community recount eating meat of dead animals, this practice has been consciously stopped in due course of time. Ambedkar in his seminal work 'Untouchability, The Dead Cow And The Brahmin' explained the historical, cultural and religious means of how tending to the dead cow affected the food habits of the Mahars. The economic transaction in the Mahar community removing and carrying away dead cows from the houses of those who owned them and being able to use the skin and other parts of the cow’s body according to their needs was once a privilege. But in due course of time, this turned into an obligation. Ambedkar observed, “As they could not escape carrying the dead cow they did not mind using the flesh as food in the manner in which they were doing previously.” (Ambedkar 1948) The culture of eating cow meat, previosuly sanctioned socially now had stigma attached to it.


In some ways, the consumption of the 'dead cow' brought the concept of 'untouchability' to the fore. Reforms were needed. 'Their food pattern underwent a radical shift, moving from Murdada[4] (meat abstracted from dead cattle) through Hatfatka[5] (meat acquired through hunting) to Toliv[6] (the meat of a slaughtered animal). Led by Bhimrao Ambedkar, Dalits of Maharashtra discovered a morally higher value in giving up meat of dead cattle in favour of dignity and self-respect.  Even if they have given up eating the meat of dead cattle, their cultural identity seems to be permanently attached to this food  (Guru 2009).' To consume meat, it has to be bought. Hence, meat is seldom eaten by members of the community. The poor economic condition of the Dalit community in Chincholi makes them highly dependent on the Public Distribution System[7] for food grains.


There is stigma associated with eating meat, and certain communities have been relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy because of their eating practices (Ilaiah 1996). Certain marginalized caste groups are devoid of any governmental support and are ousted from the socio-economic system with respect to food/ resource transactions within the village. Treading further, the tribes in a village ecosystem have dynamically varied food histories. Their food histories are etched in forests, displacement, migration and adaptation.


Situated along the Nagpur-Indore State Highway, amidst the core forest area of Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, Semadoh is an important village. The village is the connecting link between forest areas and the urban centers. One of the hamlets in Semadoh village of Amravati was called ‘Jhoparpatti,’ (it translates to ‘slum’ in English.) The poorest people, belonging to the Korku[8] tribe, reside in this hamlet. Kabra and his family live in this hamlet.


Kabra and his wife have been unemployed for over six months after a temporary ban on tourism according to a Supreme Court order[9]. The family has been managing on a loan from relatives and some savings. They are fortunate in being able to access food grains at lower costs due to their entitlements under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana[10]. Kabra mentioned that the Forest Department provides them with work (like watershed development and road building)  for two months, during the summer season. The work would be allocated to an individual once in two years; the reason for this was attributed to the limited work in the village. Kabra and his wife both did not get any work from the Forest Department this summer.


The family has two goats that supplement the family’s income. To keep occupied, Kabra would take the  goats for grazing while his wife took care of  household chores. The children accompanied the father on weekends, when they didn’t go to school. Kabra went to the forest with three of his neighbours; all of them have less than four goats each and going together reduced the risk of an attack by wild animals. In monsoons while in the forests, Kabra collected bamboo shoots and mushrooms for the household. This year, Kabra’s relatives had given him small portions local millets and some black rice[11]. Semadoh, due to its strategic location, is under strict surveillance from the forest department. The forest department had put a stop on subsistence farming in Semadoh, several years ago. This completely denied the villagers’ access to vegetables. During the monsoons, for four months, a weekly market did bring some vegetables to the village.


Millets like Kutki were once regularly consumed by the people of their community, Kabra recollects. Kutki is a little millet, rich in dietary energy, vitamins, several minerals (especially micronutrients such as iron and zinc, insoluble dietary and phytochemicals with antioxidant properties (Kaur, et al., 2014) These days, the millet is reserved for pregnant and lactating women. Their consumption of Mahua[12], found abundantly in forests of this region has also suffered due to the forest department’s exclusionary policies. Narratives around Mahua today remain restricted to reminiscing rice pancakes, snacks with the flowers of the tree and cooking oil extracted from the seeds. These recipes are now fond memories of childhood for adults in the community. Mahua is now only used to prepare liquor which is sold in local shops. These local shops primarily cater to commuters along the highway. Surviving on meagre resources, Kabra and his family were willing to leave Melghat in search of better livelihood opportunities.


The interconnectedness between livelihoods and hunger is deep rooted and there is no causality between the two. Mandar attributes the hunger of the socially discriminated groups to the fact that they form a major part of the unorganised labour force. (Mandar, 2012) However, hunger is repeated and recreated when the livelihoods are affected. The Korku tribe, being denied access to land and the activity of subsistence farming did affect food security in their context.


Anthropologists have been asserting the vital importance of access to land and food security through case studies ranging across vast geographical areas like South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia. Schemes for conservation and increasing agricultural production have failed to deliver and perhaps worsened the scenario in some cases (such as that of the Korku tribe) in their invariable exclusion of the farmer from her land (Pottier, 1999). While analysing the case of the Mahars of Yavatmal district in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, their traditional eating habits drawn from their occupation could have warranted a more protein rich diet due to the consumption of meat. Decades after the movement[13] led by Ambedkar, the change in eating habits for the Mahars, in the case of Chincholi village, did not ascertain better standing in the social, economic or cultural domains. It is unfortunate that rural India still grapples with social barriers to food security, despite government interventions and civil society movements. In a study conducted across the three states of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – segregated seating is still practiced in rural classrooms everywhere. It has been observed that dominant caste groups make sure that the Dalit hamlets are either equipped with exclusive Anganwadis[14] or the Anganwadi workers are still hired from dominant caste (Mandar 2012).


Another anthropological study conducted in the 1970s studying the food and water transactions conducted on the basis of locations within the caste hierarchy, in a village on the outskirts of the Indian capital, New Delhi. The highest castes accept food and water from the least number of other caste groups. Also, the researcher in this study, observed that as people became income/ land-rich, and their mobility rose, they emulated the eating and transaction practices of the upper-caste groups (Freed, 1970). A theorist opines the emulation of these upper-caste eating practices is being promoted by certain political parties and hence becoming part of the national ethos. This discourse is seen as furthering the divide within the caste hierarchy (Ilaiah, 1996). Recent instances like Dadri[15] seem to reaffirm such theories. Food practices are central to discrimination.


It is therefore worth questioning if schemes like the Mid-day meal and Anganwadi are effective beyond the caste hierarchy, and work towards equality. There is an obvious failure in the design of government programmes with regard to food distribution. While the government is justified in its effort of providing food to the underserved and vulnerable sections of the society, it is important to factor in the dietary patterns of a community and the ways in which access to food operates socially. Instead of only distributing food, the subjective and collective lived experiences of people should be taken into account while preparing the scheme. Accounting for the collective experiences of eating will make the scheme better suited to the region in which it operates. Locally produced grains have a significant place in peoples’ diets. In this sense, food is not only the need of an individual but also a collective experience of a community belonging to a geographical region. Peoples’ nutritional intake of millets and coarse grains in the Vidarbha region could be retained if the scheme was not designed in a “one size fits all” manner.  The situation could be substantially different if government issued guidelines for the hiring of Anganwadi workers only from Dalit communities and local bodies were given a mandate to redistribute caste-based power relations inside the village ecosystem.


Of households


In rural Maharashtra, women/ girls eat differently from men/ boys, within a household. While women/ girls are explicitly and dominantly engaged in the preparation of food – they are habituated to eating less. This practice of eating less is internalized and also a result of an overarching patriarchal culture.


The Dhimar/ Dhivar[16] community in Katangi village of Gondia district were traditionally associated with fishing and preparing puffed rice. Pooja, her husband, adolescent son and daughter live in Katangi and follow their traditional occupation. Many others from the community have similar livelihoods. A dam was built at Katangi, a few years ago and after that people from the community were not able to pursue fishing as a livelihood. Pooja’s family had suffered as well. Other than displacement from their homes, Pooja’s family had to give up on fishing altogether.


However, Pooja still prepared puffed rice. To this day, the system continues being a barter system, where in exchange for one payla[17] of paddy, one payla of puffed rice had to be prepared. The women in the family were responsible for preparing the puffed rice. Pooja complained that this was, by no means, fair. She even said that when the people from the community tried asking for money in return for preparing puffed rice, but they were denied this right by the people belonging to the land-rich Powar community.


In order to prepare the puffed rice, the mother and daughter would begin working at night and roast the rice for four hours in a home-based furnace. Pooja said that they worked at night because it was cooler. Working long hours near the furnace, in the day, was strenuous. During the day, the mother and her daughter, rolled incense sticks. For every bundle of thousand incense sticks, they were given Rs. 18 as remuneration. The household chores and food preparation was also allocated equitably between the mother and daughter.


Pooja said that the husband and son spent most of their time drinking and gambling. However, the earnings of the mother and daughter had to be given to her husband regularly. To meet household expenses, Pooja and her daughter had to lie about their actual earnings.


While talking about their staple diet, Pooja spoke about how she and her daughter did not like the meat of fish and ate the watery curry prepared to cook the fish with rice. She said that the men liked the meat of the fish better and they were happy to give away their share to them.


It is very difficult to point towards women’s lack of food security in studies investigating the difference in nutritional intake within the household. Empirical approaches that tend to measure intake based on a 24-hour recall tend to ignore the nuances in consumption patterns. Why did Pooja and her daughter not like the meat of the fish? The question urges further exploration of intra-household resource allocation, to better understand women’s access to food security. Similar findings were collected amid the households of upper caste families while I was conducting my Master’s dissertation on Kanya-Kubj Brahmins of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. There are two classifications of food among the Kanya-Kubj Brahmins (i) Kachcha Khana (Raw Food) – any food that is prepared without the use of oil; and (ii) Pakka Khana (Cooked Food) – food that requires oil. Here, Kachha Khana would mean “roti” which is a bread roasted over fire; whereas Pakka Khana implies “poori,” a deep fried bread. The reason for this classification was to ascertain that the Kanya-Kubj Brahmin men have the first right over ‘Pakka Khana’. The ‘Kachcha Khana’ was prepared for the women, helpers and workers in the household. If any ‘Pakka Khana’ was left over, the women of the household ate it. Otherwise, most respondents during this study also stated how they preferred ‘Kachha Khana’ because it was easier to digest. This ‘preference’ has to be contextualised in a patriarchy. Uma Chakravarti, in her book, has comprehensively reviewed women as ‘gatekeepers’ of the caste system within households and families. Her theorization has focussed on how women were used as objects to ascertain the identity of the community. The control over women’s sexuality and their access to material resources (like food) are methods to institutionalize women’s positions as subordinate while also simultaneously making them the very guardians of this system  (Chakravarti 1993).


All over India, gender based discrimination and malnutrition are ubiquitous. Their simultaneous existence is governed by complex linkages. However, these linkages cannot be reduced to simple notions such as more women are malnourished than men. Many dimensions affect these discriminations and also food insecurity. Socio-cultural practices such as early motherhood wherein the infant is malnourished because of a malnourished adolescent mother is an example of the above. This creates a cycle of malnourishment in women and children. Taking a tangent from this perspective of placing reproductive health as an important cause for examining women’s nutritional status is necessary (Mandar 2012). Women’s access to food and nutritional security has to be purposively observed from the perspective of women’s health, capabilities and well-being. Most of the interventions and policies related to women’s development cater to reproductive health as a welfare necessity. Whereas the policies related to women’s socio-economic development focus on empowerment. Seldom, there are attempts to conjoin these two impoverishments related to women’s well-being to thus provide agency and also overall improvement in health. This lack in addressing women’s issues has inculcated an inadvertent connection between gender discrimination and malnutrition (Sethuraman & Duvvury 2007). The patriarchal culture in India exists in a manner that women/ girls are taught to eat less and sacrifice a significant share of their food for the male members (as is illustrated in the case of the Dhivar community).


Also, in a patriarchal culture, women are instrumental in the preparation of food but are still expected to eat inadequately. It is common knowledge that eating less is an attribute of acceptable femininity, even in the developed world.


The essay presented a mix of peoples’ experiences in accessing, producing and consuming food in Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. However, largely the advocacy and research on issues related to food insecurity are rooted in the discipline of Economics in India. The problem of food security needs to be tackled beyond academic disciplines and normative policymaking. Eating, accessing and producing food are subjective experiences, and need to be dealt with accordingly. The intersections of caste, tribe and gender still do not illustrate the entire gamut of experiences related to food insecurity. Disability, age and religion are also intersections which need exploration. Excellent anthropological research has been conducted on the subject in Latin America, South East Asia and Africa. Snippets from this research are comprehensively described in a textbook on food anthropology by Johan Pottier. Similar studies should be encouraged and taken up in South Asia.




[1] The Banjara Community of Chincholi is listed under the category of ‘Vimukta Jati’ or Denotified Tribe, according to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra.

[2] The Marathas are a land rich dominant caste group in this village. According to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra, they are listed under Other Backward Classes.

[3] The Mahars are a prominent group among the Dalits of Maharashtra. According to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra, they are listed under Scheduled Castes.

[4] This word has been capitalized because it is being used as a proper noun to refer to a specific kind of meat pertaining to Maharashtra in the pre-Independence context. A similar grammatical form has been maintained in the cited article above used for reference.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Public Distribution System is programme established by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution under the Union Government. This programme ensures that there is a system for supplying subsidized food items and other essential commodities to underserved populations.  The programme is jointly managed by the Union Government and States through a network Fair Price Shops where the rates are controlled.

[8] The Korku are listed under the Scheduled Tribes, according to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra.

[9] The Supreme Court had banned tourist activities in core areas of tiger reserve forests for a brief period in 2012. The ban was lifted after protests across the country, in lieu of their effect on local livelihoods.

[10] Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) is an scheme sponsoring essential food grains for ten million of the poorest families, by the Union Government of India.

[11] Black rice was a locally grown variety that was found during field work. Despite collecting a sample, we were not able to verify the variety scientifically. However, local healthcare workers at the Primary Health Center in the village informed us that this variety was rich in iron.

[12] Mahua is a prominent tree in tropical mixed deciduous forests in India. It is used for various purposes by forest tribes in Central India. The flowers are used to make alcohol and other sweet treats, the seed for extracting oil and the leaves are woven together as plates/ cups for daily use.

[13]  The Dalit Buddhist movement was Buddhist revival movement in India. It received its most substantial impetus from B. R. Ambedkar's call for the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, in 1956, to escape a caste-based society that considered them to be the lowest in the hierarchy.[2] Ambedkar saw Buddhism as a means to end the caste system in India. In following Buddhism, the eating habits of the Dalits in Maharashtra were grossly affected as well.

[14] “Anganwadi” refers to a shelter in villages, where children are tended to and provided with basic healthcare and nutrition. These were started by the Indian government in 1975 as part of the Integrated Child Development Services program to combat child hunger and malnutrition.

[15] The Dadri incident refers to a case of mob lynching where to case of mob lynching where members from the dominant Hindu community attacked and killed two family members from the minority Muslim community for allegedly consuming beef. This incident took place in September 2015 in Uttar Pradesh, in a peri-urban town on the outskirts of Delhi. 

[16] The Dhivar community is listed under Other Backward Classes, according to the Maharashtra Economic Survey.

[17] Payla is a measure used locally in the region of Vidarbha. The measure is taken in a flask like container; the amount of grain that can fit in the container is considered as the measure.




Ambedkar, B. R., 1948. Untouchability, The Dead Cow And The Brahmin. [Online] Available at:… [Accessed 4 April 2016].


Chakravarti, U., 1993. Conceptualising Brahminical Patriarchy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State. s.l.:s.n.


Freed, S. A., 1970. Caste Ranking and the Exchange of Food and Water in a North Indian Village. Anthropological Quarterly, 43(1), pp. 1-13.


Guru, G., 2009. Centre for the Advanced Study of India. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 02 10 2015].


Ilaiah, K., 1996. Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 1444-1445.


Kaur, K. D., Jha, A., Sabikhi, L. & Singh, A. K., 2014. Significance of coarse cereals in health and nutrition: a review. Journal of Food Science and Technology, 51(8), p. 1429–1441.


Mandar, H., 2012. Gender, Social Exclusion and Food. In: Ash in the Belly. New Delhi: Pearson.


Pottier, J., 1999. Food Security in Policy and Practice. In: Anthropology of Food. Cornwall: MPG Books , p. 18.


Sethuraman, K. & Duvvury, N., 2007. The Nexus of Gender Discrimination with Malnutrition: An Introduction. Economic and Political Weekly, Issue Review of Women's Studies, pp. 49-53