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Batras [बतरस]: Do malnutrition and poverty always go hand in hand: tales from Bihar

By Ratnakar Tripathy

Pulses: a must, a must!

Pulses: a must, a must!

This is just a footnote to what is now turning into a substantial national debate on poverty and malnutrition in India. This is also a much delayed piece in the sense, I have for too long been wanting to write a dietary history of my village in East Champaran, Bihar, without having written anything at all – the reason being a certain diffidence about writing on matters that have become the monopoly of the experts. The kind of time we live in, even a packet of potato chips carries information on its chemical breakdown with percentages for each component.

My history covers a time span of roughly four decades and is based on my observations which could only be intermittent, since even as a child I never lived in my village for more than two months at a stretch. My earliest memories are almost from infancy. I remember our chief minder around the house, a sullen old man called Mahesh Pandit mixing a large amount of either roasted maze or barley [Jau in Hindi] flour with water into a compact mound in a brass plate. A piece of onion and a chilly, and a lump of salt lay on the side. This was a sattu meal. Mahesh would take a small lump of the sattu paste in his fist, tighten it into a ball and shove it into his mouth. A bite from the onion, a bite of the chilly, followed by a glug of water from his brass lota! I could actually see the ball of sattu descend down the throat as he made a strange undulating movement in the neck to ease the passage of the tight solid down the hatch. As kids we found it funny and laughed cruelly, comparing his feeding to that of a snake ingesting a frog!

This was a time [1960s-70s] when in a village of 250 or so families, only one family ate chapattis on a regular basis. Everyone else ate rice with blind regularity. The rice meals were supplemented occasionally by watery dal and a dash of vegetable curry. So purees of any kind were the ultimate treat during weddings, funeral feasts and other ceremonies. This was also the time when the village-scape was dominated by the tall Arhar [Cajanus cajan] fields, providing useful jungle-like cover to adolescent and aging lovers but also bringing the vital proteins to the plates of villagers on a daily basis. Households stinged on dal as it was expensive and many poor families rarely got to taste it, of course. This was the time when you saw a straight correlation between poverty and malnourishment – people had a fair idea of what they were missing but just couldn’t afford it.

Later on when I travelled around in rural Maharashtra, I noticed the variety of protein sources available – groundnuts, a whole variety of beans, lentils that went into the poor man’s diet. I was impressed by the dietary culture.

When I came back to my village for a somewhat long stay in the mid 1980s, I found that the whole village had taken to chapatti eating which was nothing short of a dietary revolution. Sometime in the early 1990s I found myself listening to this childhood friend from a  family just emerging from serious poverty, narrate to me in great detail his daily diet – the boast was very moving indeed. He started with the basics – everyone at home gets bellyful to eat, chapati, dal, vegetables, pickle and so on and so forth, till he began slobbering at his own description. He had lived out the transition from deprivation to plenty.

What had changed during these years? Two things – the high yield varieties of wheat, and rice and the money the Bihari migrant sent home! Cut to the 2000s – the village landscape has changed immensely. Arhar has been given up on as it takes too long to fruit and does not fit into the crop cycles. The lentils are not profitable for an interesting reason – hoards of neelgais [antelopes] devour the plants even before they flower.

The latest is with more money coming in even the poorest in the village are able to buy eggs, chicken and fish much more often BUT not often enough either for a working adult or a growing child. In the meantime the village has developed a curious apathy towards dals, the main source of protein. I am of course talking about families that can afford it very easily. I am talking of families that do not understand the difference between the dietary values of wheat, rice and dals. In brief, my village may be waiting for a sudden and nasty invasion from the likes of Maggi!

The story comes a full circle when my hard-working maid in Patna complained of weakness and I asked her to eat dal more often. ‘I don’t like the taste and it gives me gas problems’, she said. The routine meals at her home consist of roti/rice and sabzi with the occasional non-veg excitement.

The moral of the story is that malnutrition and poverty do not always go together. A standard meal among the relatively well-off in my village is roti/rice/two vegetables, may be a third one added, curd during the day and/or milk at night.

I will revisit this theme again but in the meantime you know what they are missing. There is a big hole in the diet – proteins, even among those who can afford it. My story does not apply to the whole of Bihar. But on the other hand it just might to large parts of it and elsewhere.

The nightmare is – a generation of well-clothed, fairly educated and medically provided generation of children whose bodies and brains missed on the basics, irretrievably!

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