WHEN FOOD IS THE ANSWER
Condé Nast Traveller India|August - September - October 2021
The role of regional cuisine and indigenous produce in sustaining a region has found new potential in the past year.
Smitha Menon

In April 2020, at the height of the pandemic and the uncertainties it brought, Shubhra Chatterji and her husband Anand Sankar had a brainwave. Based in the remote Tons Valley in the northwestern region of Uttarakhand that survived on agriculture and tourism before the pandemic, Sankar had a front-row seat to the havoc COVID-19 wreaked. In any given year, the region would have been prepping for apple season—a short but fruitful period between July and September—during which Tons Valley farmers would travel to the mandi in Dehradun to sell their ruby-hued fruit and tide over the cold winter. But in 2020, locals were scrambling to return to their homes and farmers were staring at devastation.

Chatterji, a filmmaker and food researcher combined her social media skills with the expertise of her social entrepreneur husband to set up an “experiment”. “We asked friends and family to pre-book boxes of apples in April for when they would be ready in July. The idea was to create a cash flow for farmers to help them tide over this period. We wanted to sell 200 boxes. We ended up selling 25,000kgs,” says Chatterji. The success of the first sale led to the launch of Tons Valley Shop (tonsvalley.shop), an online store that sells produce—rajma, desi ghee, walnuts, apples and other seasonal ingredients—from this tiny patch in the hills to places like Guwahati, Jammu, Bhuj and even Thiruvananthapuram. “Honestly, we wouldn’t have had the guts to do it if we weren’t sure of the quality of the produce. For years, we’ve been transporting packets of rajma— the region has seven indigenous varieties—to our friends in Mumbai, who have more than once suggested we turn this into a business. The pandemic pushed us to do this to help the region survive.”

Thanks to the couple’s efforts, the farmers they got on board were gainfully employed to process, sort and help ship the produce, apart from getting a better-than-market rate for their apples.

THE SUSTAINABILITY CHALLENGE

Tons, like many rural areas across India, has seen a sharp increase in outward migration over the past few decades. “It’s been a long-standing problem as the lack of economic opportunities drives the younger generation out of the region to seek out their fortunes,” explains Sankar who has been working for the development and empowerment of rural communities in Tons Valley. He says that the problem is unfortunately inversely related to the standard of education in the valley. As schools in Tons are getting better, more kids are studying till the 10th grade. After that, they have no choice but to leave for better opportunities. “This changes the demographics of the place. So how does a region grow? Without a young local population, there’s a loss of indigenous knowledge, especially when development happens in rural areas. Often, it’s at the cost of local culture and natural heritage,” he says.

According to the 2011 Census, the previous 10 years saw extraordinary levels of migration. It was revealed that for the first time since 1921, urban India added more people to its numbers than rural India. Urban migration stresses already scarce local resources and infrastructure, leading to all kinds of challenges, of which health and sanitation are a few. Migrants from villages may be remunerated better in the city, but their semi-nomadic lifestyle means that they are often left out of key policies and schemes that could improve their standard of living.

Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation that studies and works for the upliftment of India’s migrant workforce, highlights the interconnectedness between migration and sustainability on their website: “There is an urgent need for solutions to transform migration into a more dignified and rewarding opportunity. Without this, making growth inclusive or at the very least, sustainable, will remain a very distant dream.”

Per Sankar, for a region to really thrive, its younger generation must see value and opportunity to develop it and be a part of its growth. It may be early days, but Chatterji and Sankar may have chanced upon a way to do just that.

Across India, farmers are struggling to make ends meet and agrarian networks and agriculture foundations are working with local communities to help them sustain the livelihoods they’ve practised for generations.

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