Food Insecurity, of Intersections and Differential Access

in Article
Published on: 01 April 2016

Accessibility and Intersections

Rural India is marked by a multiplicity of structures and hierarchies. Gender, caste, tribe, ethnicity and religion combine to create intersecting power relations that have substantial impact on individual and collective conditions. People belonging to different communities are settled in designated hamlets. Sometimes, programmes facilitated by the government and markets act as mediators to facilitate the confluence of different communities. At other times, differences in identity are points of departure.

Discriminatory practices are integral to the differences that prevail. Differences of location then also affect the consumption of food and other resources. Food is critical to the survival of human beings. And denial of access to the production and consumption of food due to various forms of discrimination is an oppressive reality. Food security is contingent on three parameters—availability, accessibility and affordability (Krishnaraj 2005:2508). The interplay of caste-based relations, stratification, and their repercussions on food security requires more ethnographic research and policy attention in India (Mandar 2012).

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 household and hamlet, we can observe differences in eating patterns on the basis of caste, tribe and gender.

Of Hamlets

Bhutka Bai, a 90-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 25 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 clearing 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 contrast to the Mahar Community. In 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 the 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. Families from this hamlet prefer migrating for work during the summers. The men and women from the hamlet go elsewhere for work during the monsoons to escape the terrible condition in 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 the erratic residential patterns caused by distress migration. In the time they spend in the village, they make brooms from a forest plant called sindori; some of them are still made responsible for sweeping and picking carcasses of dead animals in the village. Despite the dearth of resources, the dalit hamlet has a water facility with a functional hand pump. Sunita, a 70-year-old woman residing in the hamlet says 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 consciously been given up in the course of time. Led by Bhimrao Ambedkar, dalits of Maharashtra discovered a higher moral value in giving up meat of dead cattle in favour of dignity and self-respect. Their food pattern underwent a radical shift, moving from murdada (meat extracted from dead cattle) through hatfatka (meat acquired through hunting) to toliv (the meat of a slaughtered animal). 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)

The poor economic conditions of the dalit community in Chincholi makes them highly dependent on the Public Distribution System for food grains. For them to consume meat now, it has to be bought. Hence, meat is seldom eaten by members of the community.

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 bereft of any governmental support and are excluded from the socio-economic transactions with respect to food and resources in the village.

Going further, the adivasis in a village ecosystem have dynamic and varied food histories. These are associated with the forest and also etched in narratives of displacement, migration and adaptation.

Situated along the Nagpur-Indore State Highway, inside the core forest area of Melghat Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra, Semadoh is an important village. The village is the link connecting further forest areas and the urban centres. One of the hamlets in Semadoh village of Amravati was called ‘Jhoparpatti’ (slum) The poorest people, belonging to the Korku[4] 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 following a Supreme Court order.[5] The family has been managing on a loan taken 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. Kabra mentioned that the Forest Department provides them with work for two months, during summer. The work is allocated to an individual once in two years; the reason given is the limited scope for work in the village. Neither Kabra nor his wife got 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 two goats for grazing while his wife took care of the 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 fewer than four goats each and going together reduced their risk of attack by wild animals in the forest. During the monsoon, Kabra collected bamboo shoots and mushrooms for the household from the forest. This year, Kabra’s relatives had given him small portions of local millets and some black rice. Semadoh, due to its strategic location, is under strict surveillance by the Forest Department. The forest department put a stop on subsistence farming in Semadoh several years ago. This denied the villagers any access to vegetables, except for four months during the monsoons, when 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. These days, the millet is reserved for pregnant and lactating women. Their consumption of mahua, found abundantly in forests of this region has also suffered due to the forest department’s exclusionary policies. Narratives around the mahua tree today remain restricted to reminiscing about rice pancakes, snacks made from the flowers, and cooking oil extracted from the seeds, which marked their childhoods. Mahua is now only used to prepare liquor which is sold local shops. These primarily cater to commuters along the highway. Surviving on meagre resources, Kabra and his family were willing to leave Melghat to look for better livelihood opportunities.

Mandar attributes the hunger of the groups discriminated against socially to the fact that they form a major part of the unorganised labour force (Mandar, 2012). The relation between livelihoods and hunger is deep-rooted. There is no single causal relation between the two: the experience of hunger is recreated when livelihoods are affected. For the Korku tribe, being denied access to land and the activity of subsistence farming did affect their food security. Anthropologists have been asserting the vital importance of access to land and food security through case studies ranging across 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 cases (such as that of the Korku tribe) when the farmer is excluded from right over her land (Pottier, 1999). While analysing the case of the Mahars of Yavatmal, their traditional eating habits deriving from their occupation could have made for a more protein-rich diet owing to the consumption of meat. Decades after the movement led by Ambedkar, the change in eating habits for the Maharsdid not, in the case of Chincholi village, assure 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, it was found segregated seating is still practised in rural classrooms everywhere. It has been observed that dominant caste groups make sure that the dalit hamlets are either provided separate Anganwadis or the Anganwadi workers are hired from dominant castes (Mandar, 2012).

Another anthropological study conducted in the 1970s was on the food and water transactions conducted on the basis of caste location, in a village on the outskirts of New Delhi. The highest castes accept food and water from few other caste groups. It was also observed that as people acquired more land or income, and their mobility rose, they emulated the eating and transaction practices of the upper-caste groups (Freed 1970). In the opinion of one theorist, the emulation of upper-caste eating practices is promoted by certain political parties and thereby becoming part of the national ethos. This discourse is seen as furthering caste divides (Ilaiah 1996). Recent instances like the incident at Dadri seem to confirm 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 contribute to equality. There is an obvious failure in the design of government programmes with regard to food distribution. Instead of only distributing food, the subjective and collective lived experiences of people should be taken into account while preparing the scheme. The situation might be substantially different if the government issued directives to hire Anganwadi workers only from Dalit communities, and local bodies were given the mandate to redistribute caste-based power relations inside the village ecosystem!

Of Households

In rural Maharashtra, women and girls eat differently from the men and boys within the household. While women and 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 the result of an overarching patriarchal culture.

The Dhimar/Dhivar[6] community in Katangi village of Gondia district was 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 pursue similar livelihoods. A dam was built at Katangi a few years ago, after which people from the community were not able to pursue fishing as a livelihood. Pooja’s family suffered as well. Apart from being displaced from their homes, Pooja’s family had to give up on fishing altogether.

However, Pooja still prepared puffed rice. To this day, the system remains a barter system, where in exchange for one payla[7] of paddy, one payla of puffed rice has 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 said that people from the community even tried asking for money in return for preparing puffed rice, but were denied this right by members of the land-rich Powar community.

In order to prepare puffed rice, 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 during the day is strenuous. During the day, the mother and daughter rolled incense sticks. For every bundle of a thousand incense sticks, they were given Rs. 18 as remuneration. The household chores and food preparation was also divided equally between 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 with rice. She said that the men liked fish better and they were happy to give away their share to them.

It is very difficult to establish 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 accounts of 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.

Gender-based discrimination and malnutrition are ubiquitous in India. Their co-existence is governed by complex linkages. However, these linkages cannot be reduced to simple notions such as more women are malnourished than men. Many factors affect these discriminations as well as food insecurity. Socio-cultural practices such as early motherhood whereby the infant is malnourished because of a malnourished adolescent mother is an example. This creates a cycle of malnourishment in women and children. It is necessary to take a cue from this and make reproductive health an important reason to examine women’s nutritional status (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 are there attempts to relate the two types of impoverishment so as to facilitate women’s agency and also overall improvement in health. This has led to the persistence of the fortuitous connection between gender discrimination and malnutrition (Sethuraman & Duvvury 2007). Patriarchal culture in India teaches women and girls to eat less and sacrifice a significant share of their food to male members, as seen in the case of the Dhivar community. On the one hand, women are responsible for food preparation, on the other, they are expected to eat inadequately. Even in the developed world eating less is seen as acceptable feminine behaviour.

The essay presents a mix of peoples’ experiences in accessing, producing and consuming food. However, in India the advocacy and research on issues related to food insecurity are largely rooted in the discipline of economics. The problem of food security needs to be tackled across academic disciplines and normative policymaking. Eating, accessing and producing food are subjective experiences, and need to be dealt with accordingly. Intersections between caste, tribe and gender do not illustrate the entire gamut of experiences related to food insecurity. Disability, age and religion are also parts of the problem.


[1] The Banjara Community of Chincholi is listed under the category of ‘Vimukta Jati’ or Denotified Tribe, under Maharashtrian law.

[2] The Marathas are a land-rich dominant caste in this village. They are listed among Other Backward Classes in Maharashtra.

[3] The Mahars are a prominent group among the dalits in Maharashtra. They are listed among the Scheduled Castes.

[4] The Korku are listed under the Scheduled Tribes.

[5] For a brief period in 2012, the Supreme Court banned tourist activities in the core areas of tiger reserves. The ban was lifted after protests across the country about the impact on local livelihoods.

[6] The Dhivar community is listed under Other Backward Classes. 

[7] Payla is a measure used in Vidarbha district, and corresponds to the amount of grain held by a flask-like container. 



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

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Ilaiah, K. 1996. “Beef, BJP and Food Rights of People”. Economic and Political Weekly 31(24):1444–1445.

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.

Sethuraman, K. & Duvvury, N., 2007. “The Nexus of Gender Discrimination with Malnutrition: An Introduction”. Economic and Political Weekly, Review of Women's Studies 42(44):49-53.