India is Culturally the Richest in the World, Possibly the World’s Next Superpower: Thomas Sehested

India is Culturally the Richest in the World, Possibly the World’s Next Superpower: Thomas Sehested

A couple of years ago a paper in Current Science drew a lot of excitement. The paper reported evidence of rice cultivation in India as early as 9250 years ago from the Lahuradewa lake area based on paddy field diatom variation in lake sediments. It proved that the Ganga plains were the first to grow a grain that is the staple of many countries in Asia.

Today, there are serpentine queues to buy that very grain. Global food markets are not immune to developments that are happening around the world. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations says they are likely to be less affected than other sectors that are more exposed to logistical disruptions and weakened demand, such as travel, manufacturing and energy markets (Source: Market Monitor, AMIS, March 2020). But they are still vulnerable.

FAO says vulnerable groups include small-scale farmers, who might be hindered from working on their land/accessing markets to sell their products or buying seeds and other essential inputs, or struggling due to higher food prices/limited purchasing power.

Thomas Sehested, Director of the Danish Cultural Institute in India, is very positive that India, with its age old and sound farming practices will be able to guide the world. He had written a book in 2010 – “Indien – verdens næste stormagt” (India – The World's Next Great Power). Speaking to CSP, he says that today he would have titled it, ‘India - the World’s Next Superpower’. India is the land of culture, says Sehested – “the country is probably one of the culturally richest in the world.”

Ever since his first visit to India in 1988, the country, its people and culture have been of great interest for Sehested. He has been an advisor to the Danish Food and Agriculture Council for several years. A couple of years ago at the first Indo-Nordic Food Policy roundtable, stakeholders from India and some Nordic countries discussed ways to promote a more wholesome and nourishing diet, especially among children. India’s premier food standards regulation body, the FSSAI (Food Safety & Standards Authority of India), invited the Nordic Council of Ministers to share their experience on developing sustainable food policies.

Sehested says the time has come for countries around the world to look at food cultures as a whole tradition and not focus only on gastronomy. The events unfolding over the last two months have shown how focusing only on gastronomy could create a chain of disaster. “Gastronomy is only the guiding light. It’s like sports. If you want your kids to play cricket you need a Virat Kohli. You need someone to follow. Gastronomy serves the same purpose with the food and culinary tradition,” he says.

Sehested hails from Bornholm, a small island in Denmark, which like other Nordic countries has long summer nights, and very harsh winters. Not a few years ago, its economy was stagnant and all businesses and fisheries were closing down. That has changed now. “Denmark used to be on the periphery of the culinary scene. People did not go to Denmark to have something to eat. I would have persuaded you not to go. There was nothing.”

But some foresighted chefs got together and created the Nordic Food Manifesto which ‘emphasized being proud of what you have, not importing everything.’ “Growing local, growing organic, working with farmers, thinking holistically not just about what is on the table, but how you grow it, how you think of it, how you cultivate it and what to do with food waste, That changed the scene dramatically. It got a huge following and we are still riding on that wave. It changed many parts of my country and also other Nordic countries,” says Sehested.

Sehested wishes to twin Bornholm and Goa, to create a parallel pride in sustainable farming. “Goa has a beautiful culinary tradition. It has some of the best farmland in India as well as some of the best produce. It has a proud people and a strong civic society. Unfortunately, I have found after talking to the Goan people that the tourists who are in Goa are not there to eat Goan cuisine but to eat French fries and Heinz ketchup which they could eat anywhere. We are here to see if we have a common mind-set that could perhaps change some thinking not just on food but on food culture.”

Goa used to have its own varieties of wheat and rice as well as over 20 varieties of tubers and not just potato and sweet potato but currently sources most of its food from Belgaum in Karnataka. Goa has the potential to attract tourists for its cuisine alone, says Sehested. “The idea is that the tourist can experience the real Goa and immerse themselves in the ‘Goan’ because those kinds of tourists are paying more and using less. They don’t want to stay in the same 5-star hotels that you can stay anywhere in the world. They want a homestay, they want originality.”

Like Bornholm, Goa is a coastal region. Goa has its own character, one immediately knows what is Goan and what is not and that is in terms of food and food culture. The whole of India has the most varied cuisine in the world. The idea of the Goa-Bornholm project is to make it scalable and replicable,” he adds.

 “We have seen in our Nordic project that old varieties of wheat have been rediscovered, and those varieties are a little more difficult to grow. The yield is less, but the bread you get from it is out of this world and people are willing to pay for it. The holistic thinking of food is to ensure that farmers get a better livelihood, get decent pay for their produce, and if you look at the tourism industry as such, this is what tourists are looking for.”

The Nordic Food Manifesto emphasises what India’s earliest treatises on agriculture have always done - reflect the changes of the seasons in the meal, base cooking on ingredients and produce particular to local climates, landscapes and waters, combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being, promote local products and producers, promote animal welfare, promote self-suffiency with regional sharing of high-quality products and join forces with consumer representatives.

Rahul Goswami, an expert facilitator on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) with the UNESCO Asia-Pacific brings a special focus on environment and natural resources, education, livelihoods and disaster risk reduction.

He has served as a social sector consultant for the National Agriculture Innovation Project (Ministry of Agriculture) from 2009-13 to strengthen and broaden the agricultural extension network. He has written in a recent article that in India, “the abundance of foods was emphasized together with its sharing, with people in all its far-flung regions as much as with all other created beings, so that no living being of Bharata was hungry. This was treated as a primary principle of righteous public functioning, indeed a part of the dharma in India.”

Goswami wrote in Indic Today that ancient Indians “took guidance from Rishi Parashara, who wrote a general text on field crop agriculture and whose contents are so arranged that they may with scarcely any alteration be followed today as a book on introductory agriculture:

“Even the rich who possess a lot of gold, silver, jewels, and garments have to solicit farmers as earnestly as a devotee would pray to God.”

He told CSP that in Goa, his home state for the last 30 years, he was closely involved with a relatively lengthy civil society programme to spread awareness about land use and planning at the village level between 2008-11. “While the domestic tourism boom in Goa has led to round-the-year visitors today - which brushes aside any environmental carrying capacity considerations - that programme did bring in greater awareness and participation at the Panchayat level and has found local traction in several ways: garbage and waste handling, renewed interest in organically cultivated foods.”

In an article for World Heritage N°77, a magazine brought by the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Rahul wrote, “In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of the wetlands, it is intangible cultural heritage practitioners and the communities they belong to who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with, besides possessing the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue and survival remains meaningful.”

(Photos courtesy Madhavi Organic Farms, Bengaluru. Cover Pic FAO)