Indigenous knowledge of Jharkhand’s forest greens need preserving

  • Tribal communities in Jharkhand traditionally eat many types of leafy vegetables like chakoda, red koinar and munga or moringa, that are rich in nutrition and have medicinal properties.
  • Deforestation and depletion of forest produce, urbanisation and the use of pesticides, have led to the decline of many of these plants.
  • To preserve the traditional knowledge about these plants and ensure food security, there is a need to document them, promote their cultivation and raise awareness about their health benefits.

That day, September 26, was all about gluttony when a sumptuous thali was served to us in Jharkhand for lunch. It had the usual pulses, vegetables, and piping hot rice, but what stood out were the saag (greens) and chatni (chutney). The leaves of the saag looked different, and it was crunchy because of the use of the stems. The chatni, on the other hand, had a distinct taste.

Talking about the food on our plate, 72-year-old Komila Horo, a resident of Ranchi, informed us that the chatni was called Brahmi or Beng saag (Centella asiatica) chatni, which people of Jharkhand loved eating. When she showed the green leaves in her garden with which the saag was made, we realised it was actually chakoda (Cassia tora) —considered by many as an unwanted plant or weed.

A tribal woman sells forest greens in the market. The tribal communities of Jharkhand use about 56-60 types of green leaves for consumption. Photo by Vineeta Parmar and Kushagra Rajendra.

“Wherever this chakoda plant grows, carrot grass or Parthenium Hysterophorus, one of the most problematic alien invasive weeds, is rarely seen,” she said. This is corroborated by studies done by Sushil Kumar, a scientist at the Directorate of Weed Research, Jabalpur. As per his studies, if the seeds of chakoda are sown before the rains, carrot grass will not grow in that area. Horo, however, mentioned that in recent years, the chakoda plants have gradually gone missing. She said that those plants had important nutritional value—while Beng saag keeps the stomach cool, chakoda helps in digestion.

Horo showed some other leaves in her small garden, which are usually considered to be weeds. Apart from vegetables like spinach, laal saag (red spinach), pui/poi (Malabar spinach), and bathua (pigweed), there were more than 10 plants from which saag can be made. These included dill, china, kado, karmi, sunsunia, netho, gundar, chiniya radish, golgala, etc.

Greens rich in nutrition and medicinal properties

Anuradha Srivastava, an agricultural scientist from the Ranchi-based Indian Council of Agricultural Research is studying the presence of nutritional elements in vegetables found in Jharkhand. According to her research paper, along with nutrition, these vegetables are also rich in medicinal properties.

The green leaves of amaranth (Amaranthus viridis), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), Colocasia or kachhu (Colocassia esculata) etc, are rich in antioxidants. The paper notes that local leafy vegetables are highly nutritious as they are packed with minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium, and are a good source of vitamins. They are also high in fibre, low in fat and carbohydrates, and provide a reasonable source of protein. Thus, these leafy vegetables play an important role in reducing micronutrient deficiencies and ensuring nutritional security to the tribal population of rural Jharkhand. However, no substantial information is currently available regarding the nutritional composition of these lesser-known leafy vegetables.

Fifty-eight-year-old Juran Manjhi, a resident of Ichapidi village near Patratu, informed that people were using pesticides in wheat and paddy fields, due to which saag, which used to grow earlier along with these vegetables, was not growing any more. “Earlier there were white Koinar (or Kachnar trees/Bauhinia variegata) all around, but now very few are left. We make bhaji from the white flowers (tumpa saag). Now we have started planting small red koinar on the roadside,” he said. His wife Sugni, 42, showed us the saag grown in the vicinity and explained their medicinal properties. “Jungle people like us do not buy medicines from outside, we make our medicines from these plants,” she said.

Seasonal greens keep the meals healthy

The other women present there said that these saags were consumed depending on the season. Some saags are available only once or twice a year and are packed with vitamins and other medicinal properties. While showing the Moringa (drumstick) tree, Parvati Munda folded her hands and said: “It is god, it is medicine.”

Moringa leaves. Photo by Mokkie/Wikimedia Commons.
Moringa leaves. Moringa trees are found in abundance in Ranchi. Photo by Mokkie/Wikimedia Commons.

According to Dr Neelam Verma, a physician at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences (RIMS) in Ranchi, moringa (drumstick) is a tree leaf found in abundance in Jharkhand. These greens, which are available throughout the year, are called superfoods for the many medicinal properties they have that help in fighting diseases ranging from common cold and cough to increased blood pressure. The flowers and leaves of moringa are packed with antioxidants. She informed that those leafy greens played an important role in ensuring the availability of micronutrients in the diet and were inadvertently providing food and nutritional security to the tribal population of rural Jharkhand. She also added that the forest dwellers were experts on weather and food, and that they were well-versed about the advantages of consuming those greens as per the weather conditions.

Sugni Birhor was drying some leaves in the settlement of Birhors, a primitive tribe of Patratu. Fresh leaves of chakor, chench, moringa, futkal, beng, chimti, koiner, sarla, kudrum, sakhin, hirmichiya, siliari, matha, karmi, boot, etc, were kept in the sun, dried, ground and cooked. These are consumed in the summer when the forests dry up and the availability of vegetables also reduces. These dried greens are consumed in many ways. They are often cooked with rice flour, and oil, onion, tomato, green chili and salt are added. The locals call this dish saag mar jhor. It has a slightly earthy taste and is eaten with rice. The villagers informed that during the rainy season, when it was difficult to venture into forests, and prey like herons or pheasants were not easily found, the leaf powders were cooked with honey.

Read more: Forest dwellers struggle amid depleting forest resources

Green powders find takers in the market

The powdered forms of different saags are sold in small packets in the Budh Bazaar of Ranchi. We met Nirmala who was selling one such green powder. She said: “Greens are the food of the poor. The labourers buy these greens. We collect leaves from the forest and dry them. These days, not all leaves are found in the forests. The forest density has started decreasing, and fewer vegetables are available now.”

While talking to locals and those selling the greens in the rural areas of Ranchi, Patratu, Giridih, Gumla, Jamshedpur, Madhupur, McCluskieganj, and Garhwa, we found that the tribals in Jharkhand use about 56-60 types of green leaves. Their names may be different in the local dialects of tribes like Munda, Santhal, Ho, Oraon, etc., but in almost all communities, these leaves are eaten in different seasons. Apart from these, there are some other leafy greens which are not found in the local markets, but the rural people collect and consume them.

Dried greens are also sold in tribal markets of Jharkhand. Photo by Vineeta Parmar and Kushagra Rajendra

During National Nutrition Month in September, people from the Anganwadi centres and school and college students are made aware of the presence of nutrients in food. Kanchan Singh, the assistant director of Social Welfare Department, Jharkhand, said that planting these greens in the available spaces in Anganwadis, school campuses and gram panchayats would be a step towards bridging the nutrition gap. Spinach and local saag panna help in beating iron deficiency. These greens are immensely beneficial for pregnant and lactating mothers as well. Besides, these nutrition-packed greens and vegetables are available at very low prices. This wealth of treasure accessible in the rural areas of Jharkhand must be promoted in the cities as well.

Arun Kumar, a scientist with the Birsa Agricultural University (BAU), said that earlier they could consume fruits, flowers, leaves and roots of some plants from the jungles that were not laced with pesticides and fertilisers. The elderly in the households would use these leaves for the treatment of many diseases.

A need to document traditional knowledge

At a time when people are drawn to harmful fast-food items, the tribals are trying to keep their traditions alive. Today, when biodiversity is under threat due to climate change and the use of pesticides, saving these local vegetables and greens is a challenge. However, the government is running projects like Potential Crop to preserve this biodiversity. These plants, which are included in the diet of the local people of Jharkhand, are considered weeds in other parts of the country due to lack of information.

Kumar stressed that there was no alternative to the lifestyle of tribal communities living in Jharkhand from the point of view of conservation and judicious use of food-related resources. “Therefore, there is a need to include the traditional knowledge of edible plants, food processing and medicinal values ​​used by the forest dwellers and disseminate it to other people. If their powders get a proper market, it can provide nutritional security to the entire country,” he said.

Expressing concern, Anurag Linda, a professor of environmental science at the Central University of Jharkhand, said that the forests of Jharkhand were diminishing due to which the knowledge of our ancestors would also go extinct with the depletion of forest produce.

Due to pesticides and invasive weeds, some plant species are going extinct. In such a situation, there is a need to document the information related to these traditional greens and make the greens accessible to the people, so that the vision of a healthy India can be realised through public health.

This story was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.


Banner image: Leafy greens and vegetables play an important role in reducing micronutrient deficiencies and ensuring nutritional security of the tribal population of rural Jharkhand. Photos by Vineeta Parmar and Kushagra Rajendra.

Exit mobile version