The connection between city and village is an important and complicated one here in India. Having had the joyful, yet backbreaking experience of planting rice, legs calf-deep in sludgy soil, I can understand the amount of labor that is needed to feed a family, not to mention the incredible work and many hands needed to feed an entire rice-eating city such as Shillong. The production of rice is a feat in and of itself, but there are also other challenges to the harvest, such as the increasingly unpredictable monsoon rains that feed the small, terraced hillside fields, as well as increasingly difficult to find sources of fertilizer (cow manure). The process of cleaning, packaging, and transporting the beautiful grains to the city requires added organization and planning along unreliable roads, peppered with potholes and crowded with trucks (the only means of efficiently transporting substantial/large amount of goods in the state).
The city of Shillong sits in the state of Meghalaya in Northeast India. The region is known for its Horticultural abundance and its heavy rainfall. Shillong receives around 90 inches of rain a year (Seattle receives around 36 inches per year), while other parts of the Meghalaya state receive as much as 460 inches per year. Meghalaya is so known for its rain, in fact, that The Atlantic recently featured a series of photos of the state, which is known as”The Wettest Place on Earth.”
The rainy climate of Meghalaya helps to make it one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. Hundreds of rice species, which vary in both cultural and biological significance as well as taste and growing profiles, thrive in the region. However, most of the rice that is currently grown in the state is used only for subsistence consumption and amounts to less than 50% of the total amount consumed in Meghalaya (Meghalaya State Planning Commission, 2011). Red rice, known locally as Khasi rice, is a rich flavorful rice which many of the farmers prefer to eat. Though, each farmer would attest to the fact that they have their favorite varieties for differing purposes, including: medicinal properties, certain family gathering meals, for their kids preferences, rice snacks, ritual practices, for selling, and for growing in particular soil conditions.
Most city dwellers in Shillong prefer to eat white rice imported from the plains states of India because it is less filling than the red Khasi rice that rural farmers rely upon for sustenance throughout the day. Moreover, apart from the low supply of local red rice, white rice is cheaper than the local red or sticky rice when purchased in the city market (roughly $0.23/lb versus $0.34-$0.52/lb respectively). Rice grown within the state finds its way into the city in the form of rice snacks, which office workers, laborers, school children and others consume with daily afternoon tea. Dark purple rice is ground into flour and made into single serving size plain cakes (pumaloi), white rices are made into small pancake like breads (putharo) or are steamed with small pieces of pork fat (pudoh), and red rices are ground into flour, mixed with jaggery and steamed in leaves (pusla). These relatively flavorless snacks are the perfect texture and size for dipping in tea or soaking up small portions of meat or vegetable curries any time of the day.
To understand how rice is transported from the farms to the city, one must understand a bit about the state’s roadway system. The main highway from the nearest airport and train station in Guwahati, Assam state to Shillong city, for example, has been under a four-lane construction project for over a decade due to red tape, tribal land rights and corruption issues. Adding to the problems are the yearly monsoon rains and traffic loads which continue to wear away at the progress that is made. Yet, this section of National Highway 40 is a lifeline for residents of Shillong and the rest of Northeast India, where a small strip of land called the Siliguri Corridor (also known as the chicken neck of India) separates these sections from mainland India. The transportation issues found in Shillong are similar to those found in other hill stations throughout India. Without rail access to the city, rice and all goods from outside of the state are trucked in to the major cities, unloaded into Food Corporation of India warehouses, taken to wholesale markets by smaller trucks, buses, or vans and then daily-wage porters, who carry multiple 45+ lb bags through the narrow, crowded footpaths and maze of alleys, distribute the rice to shops and cafes. The numerous steps needed to ensure rice makes it from out-of-state-farms to tables adds up bit-by- bit to the cost of this staple food. However, because it is grown on a larger scale, packaged and distributed in bulk, this rice remains cheaper to the city consumer than its locally grown counterpart.
Local rice is brought to the city and sold to wholesale marketers when villagers make their way to markets early in the morning to ensure a higher profit than what they would earn selling rice in their villages. The villagers buy other necessities that are only available in the city with the income they make from selling rice in the morning, making the trip more cost-effective. The journey from the small rural farms to Shillong can be a difficult one as transportation from villages is often along small, curvy hillside roads. The taxi SUVs that make the route are brimming with people, cone-shaped baskets of produce, animals and other essentials that need to get from point A to point B and back again.
Besides the issues of transportation to Shillong, those buying and selling rice often must deal with inadequate storage facilities. As mentioned earlier, rice is often brought to Food Corporation of India (FCI) store houses, which are government warehouse facilities where excess grain is kept. India’s storage of grain–and how much ends up spoiling–has been a considerable challenge and often discussed in the national politics. The FAO reports that India’s grain production has increased, yet the amount wasted has remained at 10% for almost a decade, largely due to inadequate storage that allows rodents and moisture to spoil the grain. Rice is stored at several levels, from the individual farmer to the government FCI facilities, and much of the waste occurs at the farmer level. The Wall Street Journal, too, has run a story about the lack of dry storage leading to tons of rotting grain throughout India, which in turn has decreased the supply and driven prices up for consumers even more. Considering that India is one of the greatest producers of rice in the world, cultivating almost 158 million tonnes per year, yet has a serious hunger issue, with experts categorizing 43 percent of children under 5 years of age as underweight, the loss of precious grain due to poor infrastructure in the supply chain is particularly sorrowful.
Although the challenges in storage, safe roadways and nutrition are great, the manner in which projects and every day activities are carried out in India, in the face of all that can go wrong, is still quite miraculous. The amount of human labor and little reliance on large machinery in both the field and among the women who sort and sell the rice is astounding. There is still a long way to go in terms of food security, storage and distribution, but maneuvering through the markets, I realized that each step taken to get the food to this place, accessible to most people every day, is really remarkable. There are many hands taking part in the food system throughout Indian cities and there is an incredible reliance upon seemingly countless numbers of people to bring precious rice to hundreds of thousands in cities like Shillong, multiple times a day.