Garh Bhoj: A Social Activist's Mission To Popularise Traditional U'Khand Foods

The hills would often reverberate with the "Kodo-Jhangora khayenge, Uttarakhand banayenge" slogan, remembers Dwarika Prasad Semwal, a social activist who has pioneered a mission to popularise the state's traditional foods. 

Auli, uttrakhand

At the peak of Uttarakhand's statehood movement in the 1990s, the hills would often reverberate with the "Kodo-Jhangora khayenge, Uttarakhand banayenge" slogan, remembers Dwarika Prasad Semwal, a social activist who has pioneered a mission to popularise the state's traditional foods. The slogan appealed to Semwal, at the time a teenager helping his father run a small eatery that frequently served savory local dishes made of 'Mandawa' and 'jhangora' (category of millets) grown abundantly in the village.

"Though just 18 or 19 at the time, I had no doubt that the struggle for statehood was a movement for Uttarakhand's separate identity and its traditional foods and dishes were an integral part of it," Semwal told PTI in an interview. When Uttarakhand was created in 2000, Semwal's strong conviction about the delicious taste and high nutritional properties of traditional hill food set him on the mission to popularise a typical Uttarakhandi 'thali' made of delicacies of the mountains named "Garh Bhoj". 

The purpose was two-fold -- to keep the state's culture alive by helping people develop a taste for traditional Uttarakhandi food and give a push to the farming of local crops, especially millet-based produce by creating a market for them. Twenty-three years on, Semwal has a sense of achievement as Kodo, jhangora, Mandawa and dishes made out of these crops, which grow aplenty in the state, are being served to students in government schools across the state at least once a week as part of the mid-day meal.'Garh Bhoj' stalls dealing in traditional food items like "mandate ka halwa" "jhangore ki kheer", "swale ki puri", "gahat ka fanu", "gahat ki patungi" and "gahat ki roti" can now be seen in all cultural fairs of Uttarakhand, he said. 

The state government has issued orders to buy 9,600 metric tonnes of Mandua to supply them to schools. A Minimum Support Price (MSP) of over Rs 3,500 per quintal for mandua has also been announced. Semwal sees the Centre's decision to celebrate 2023-24 as the millet year and the subsequent approval recently by the state cabinet to Uttarakhand's Millet Mission as a culmination of the efforts made collectively by activists like him and the successive governments towards the promotion of local cuisine and agricultural produce. The state government's millet mission will facilitate the monthly distribution of 1 Kg of millet to each Antyodaya family through the Public Distribution System. 

"Such a push by the government will create a bigger market for millet and promote its cultivation by our farmers besides strengthening the rural economy and putting brakes on continued migration from the hill villages,"  Semwal said.  Uttarakhand Police has also made it compulsory for its 365 canteens in the state to serve Garh Bhoj consisting of delicacies typical of the state at least once a week to its personnel, he said. Garh Bhoj has also been put on the menus of hospitals.The Uttarakhand Bhawan in Mumbai also serves Garh Bhoj items twice a week, he said. 

"Traditional foods and dishes of Uttarakhand apart from being tasty are high in nutrition and help build immunity. It was one of the reasons why their consumption during the Covid pandemic increased," Semwal said.  "Mandua and jhangora are good for diabetes, Gahat or Kulthi soup for kidney stones, and Chaulai Mujli for first-stage cancer," Semwal said underscoring the medicinal properties of traditional crops of Uttarakhand and dishes made out of them. Similarly, "Jhangore ki kheer" is good for the liver and prescribed as a guaranteed treatment of jaundice, he said. 

The successive state governments have been extremely supportive of Semwal's campaign. Former chief minister Harish Rawat had agreed in principle to grant the status of state food to Garh Bhoj in 2015, he said.However, his tenure came to an end before he could do that.   Former DGP Anil Raturi and his immediate successor Ashok Kumar were instrumental in making it compulsory for the police canteens to serve it once a week while its inclusion in the mid-day meal scheme would not have been possible without the support of education minister Dhan Singh Rawat, Semwal said. However, this kind of acceptance and recognition of Garh Bhoj did not come easily. 

"We were scoffed at when we came up with the idea. Accustomed to eating dal-chawal, people found it even regressive to go back to traditional hill food. We had to struggle a lot to convince them about their health benefits, " Semwal, whose NGO Himalaya Paryavaran Jadi-booty Agro Sansthan leads the campaign, said. "First we involved women's self-help groups to make local cuisine popular, then we involved the district administration in the exercise and gradually reached the ministers who were very supportive," he said.  "We also told people how growing Mandawa and jhangora in their fields could be economically rewarding as they could be grown even in deficit rainfall and are not destroyed by wild animals as they perhaps don't like their taste", he said.  

They were also told that growing Mandawa and jhangora crops can bring them good profits as they are low on investment and high on yield, he said. "The government's support made our task a little easier, I especially thank former chief minister Harish Rawat, present chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami, cabinet ministers Premchand Aggarwal,  Dhan Singh Rawat, DGP Ashok Kumar and his predecessor Anil Kumar Raturi for their proactive support to our campaign," Semwal said.

He said his campaign will also gain much strength from the budgetary thrust to millet promotion and the state cabinet's approval of the Millet Mission. They will encourage more and more people in the hills of Uttarakhand to take to farming and strengthen their economy, he said.