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Living Beyond Binaries of People, Place, Prosperity

Socially and ecologically ethical food systems that provide locally appropriate nutrition with a positive ecological footprint (zero waste)

Photo of Satyarupa Shekhar
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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Palni Hills Conservation Council (PHCC)

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Madhu Ramnath, the Vice President of PHCC, is an advisor. Madhu is an ethno-botanist, who is now active in documenting and promoting the use of wild (uncultivated) foods,often neglected by mainstream food policies in the country.Madhu is engaged in work studies linking culture and ecology, and documents the vast latent knowledge that indigenous communities have about biodiversity conservation.Through his work,he demonstrates that agriculture,food security and forest protection policies have paid little attention to the lands and forests inhabited by indigenous communities.He has lived among the indigenous communities of Bastar, in central India, and has extensively written about forests, wild foods of South Asia, food and forest policy.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Republic of India

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?


What country is your selected Place located in?

Republic of India

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Satyarupa Shekhar has grown up in the Nilgiris mountains and has lived in Chennai for the past decade.For her,Chennai is both easy going and an influential hub for exciting innovation,especially with cuisine experimentation.She loves that people are welcoming and hospitable,gently challenging boundaries but remaining accommodating and embracing of cultural and social diversity.Her work on urban governance allows her to interact with municipal officials to improve the delivery of public services and making planning pro poor.She has conceptualised and executed innovative action research projects that re-look at common urban challenges,including those on informal waste workers,public toilets,waste management - each has resulted in significant positive changes in municipal policy and practice.She has worked with Chennai’s city government and one Tamil Nadu state department to improve their data management practices to plan civic infrastructure better,and has supported the creation of data that has been used by the city government,Madras High Court,and other civil society organisations.Satyarupa is recognised as a commentator on urban governance in Chennai, and data and civic technology for development. 

Ajay Tannirkulam is a native Tamil speaker who was born and raised in Eastern India.His educational pursuits took him to Mumbai for an undergraduate degree in applied Physics and to Michigan,Ann Arbor for a Phd in Astrophysics. Fortuitous circumstances brought him to Chennai (his father’s hometown) in 2009.A stint at microeconomics research and interaction with farming households created a new passion for understanding agriculturalists and agricultural ecosystems.In 2012,he co-founded an organisation that works with 1500+ small and marginal farmers and farm workers towards reducing drudgery and to make the crop choices and production methods eco-friendly.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Tamil people are proud of their culture, which they express through music,martial arts,dance,literature and poetry,food and architecture.More than 40 million people call Tamil Nadu home and are proud of Tamil,one of the oldest surviving classical languages, Bharatnatyam,a classical dance,and classical Carnatic music, myriad folk music and dance forms,and temple architecture. At the same time, Tamilians are hospitable,open to others and new ideas, and increasingly experimental. Tamil food culture is diverse,a reflection of the historically rigid caste lines interacting with  plentiful food sources and new diasporas that accompanied invasions and migrations,including to Singapore, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. Vegetarian, coastal,and meat-heavy cuisines are part of the milieu. Rice, pulses, millets, groundnuts, sugarcane, vegetables, root and aquatic food, milk, honey, and spices like tamarind, chillies, pepper, cinnamon, turmeric produced here create a colourful and spicy food palette.

The Western Ghats,Thiruvannamalai Hills,Palar and Cauvery rivers’ drainage systems, and the Bay of Bengal create 5 agro ecological zones in the area. Annual rainfall varies between 600 mm to 2500 mm,giving rise to a vegetation diversity that ranges from the tropical-ever-green forests to dry thorn forests.The region is home to 36 indigenous, nomadic communities who constitute 1% of the population,but their lifestyles and cultures are threatened by the shrinking forests and grasslands.Half of the population is rural and  dependent on agriculture and allied activities and more than 500,000 households rely on fishing for their livelihoods. 

Chennai,the largest city in the state with a population of 8 million,is the political and economic capital of Tamil Nadu,with the automobile and IT industries bringing in residents from different parts of the country and the world. Chennai hosts close to 100 diplomatic missions,many of which host music, theatre,and food festivals that constantly introduce Chennaiites to new cultures and foods.New apps are letting consumers choose meals that combine meals from restaurants,street vendors and home chefs.Chennai is easy going with a rebellious streak,constantly evolving to reflect its cosmopolitan diaspora. 

Rural urban migration is making cities more crowded and preferences for urban employment are largely driving people’s aspirations.Women washing,children bathing, fishermen standing in knee-deep water, and colourful boat races are images that urban residents say disappeared less than a decade ago. Many low-income communities and fishers are deeply saddened by the complete absence of green vegetables,fish and crab that were easily accessible on the banks and shallow waters of the rivers. Chennai’s urban poor are severely under-nourished,although this is far more related to their lack of income than to a lack of capacity to produce food. Their incomes are so low that their health and nutritional status are at risk from any rise in staple food prices.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Many Chennai residents can still recall the Cooum and Adyar rivers being an integral part of their daily life. Today, they see only garbage, sewage and industrial effluents. Despite the high rate of urbanisation, poor planning plagues cities: pristine lakes and fertile river floodplains were used to build low income housing sites, and to dispose of construction and industrial waste. A similar transformation can be observed among rural and tribal communities. Regardless of the rainfall conditions, public policy has caused agriculture, culture and diets to be dominated by rice, banana, coconut and sugarcane; crops that have short production cycles and are water intensive. Large swathes of hillsides have been cleared to grow tea, coffee and bananas. 

Though more people are engaged in agriculture, fisheries, and livestock rearing, their incomes are declining, resulting in rural to urban migration, and seeking employment in the services sector. This has caused distress sales of rural lands, farmer suicides, and a high incidence of bonded labour. Forests have shrunk and fragmented due to expanding farms and urban areas, resulting in the forced displacement of tribal communities. They rue that the loss of their lands, foods and stories is causing a loss in identities. 

A variety of traditional protein and vitamin rich foods have been replaced by rice in diets and aspirations. Vegetables are more expensive than pre-packaged food. Public policy and subsidies promotes an excessive reliance on modified crops, petrochemical-based fertilisers and farm machinery, and dependence on water and electricity. Public supplies of staples are cheap but poor quality, prompting many to sell it to more needy and use the profits to buy better quality food.

In 2050, 1/3 of Chennai would be submerged and large swathes of coastal TN would be inundated due to sea level rise. Rainfall and temperature variations would be amplified, and groundwater more saline. Nearly 1/4 of the population remains poor and depends on the public food system to meet their calorie needs and income constraints. The public food system continues to be calorie-focused, but would have diversified in a limited way to include more complex carbohydrates. Urban culture and diets are heavily influenced by global trends, but local farmers are unable to respond effectively. While traditional foods have made a come-back, people are not open to new protein sources.

Sadly in 30 years,large food corporations will still dominate the food supply chain,and large farmers continue to receive larger shares in water;thus able to plant multiple crops.Many of them would have taken to palm oil cultivation to benefit from the public subsidy.Small and medium farm holdings will be dominant, though continue to battle inadequate state protection against large food corporations.Public policy will have made some concessions but due to lobbyists and international pressures from foreign businesses and companies,there will still be structural challenges in urban and agriculture policies that support capitalist and mechanised systems of food production that is devoid of nature and of the role of farmers.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our vision empowers people to overcome poverty, hunger and malnutrition, and stewardship of the environment so that future generations can also live in prosperity. It builds autonomy and adaptive capacities through four key pathways. 

Embrace agroecology Farmers adopt a holistic farming practice where they do not purchase anything from outside, relying instead on nature and human waste to provide the water and nutrients necessary. They would introduce fast-growing, drought resistant, pollinator-friendly fruit trees that are popular in local cuisines and culture, whose fruits are also nutritious. Farms and urban gardens would have a combination of canopy trees, herbaceous plants, vines, surface and rhizomatic plants. They would rely on biofences and buffer zones to establish the continuum from farms to forests, thereby enhancing the ability of plants to self-regulate their pest control and be climate resilient. 

Prioritise health and diets Public food schemes introduce complex carbohydrates millets to directly improve the nutritional intake of 75-80% of the population. Public investments recognise that clean water, sanitation and hygiene improve nutrition and health, thus integrating these to prevent diarrhoeal and parasitic diseases. Damage to intestinal development is avoided and leads to a reduction in mal/undernutrition and stunting in children. Agroecology supports rural women to develop autonomy through commercialisation of collective action, like producer groups. Women (with the support of policy makers and civil society organisations to build capacity and knowledge) become more autonomous and empowered to positively shape household food security, dietary diversity, and health.

Establish psychological-spatial connectomes Place-relationship patterns improve the way people interact to establish a continuum of microhabitats that benefit food production. Urban policy mandates in situ waste and water recycling, renewable energy, and encourage home and rooftop gardens to grow microgreens and perennials, while also reducing their energy demand for air conditioning. Biomimetics provides low-cost and low-tech equipment to make growing food in homes easier. Technology enables farmers to connect with consumers for farm to home delivery services, and consumers can trace nutrition and supply chain information of food products.

Reduce ecological footprint Decentralised processing of human and food waste replaces petrochemical-based fertilisers and fuel for public food kitchens. Economics and technology replace plastic with coconut coir, banana fibre, and mushroom-based packaging. Informational technology allows consumers to scan their food for quality and nutritional information so that food and packaging waste can be avoided. Indigenous communities and smallholder farmers provide subscription-based harvest boxes that contain locally available and sustainably harvested wild honey, fruits, and root crops.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Chennai is a celebration of diversity and a local, regional and national influencer in the relationship between people, food, production and space. Everyone has sufficient food that is safe and nutritious, allowing them to live full and happy lives. People will be passionate about what they put in their bodies and care about how it was produced leading to a major reduction of chemical based agriculture as well as a greater variety of species cultivated. People will discuss and ask each other about where and the techniques used to produce what is on their plate. Urban centres will flourish with uncommon breeds and unusual varietals. It will be trendy to be a food producer, whether that be on traditional agricultural spaces or from your apartment balcony. People will share seeds and discuss traits as they want to experiment with cross breeding. Food production will no longer be seen as work for the poor, but something shared across all socio-economic and geographical lines. 

Food will be produced in holistic systems that reduce waste through recognising the non monetary benefits of farm outputs (such as stalks for mulch or animal waste for fertiliser or biogas). Resilient land and water management ensure the healthy functioning of vital ecosystem services such as pollination, soil nutrient cycling, natural pest control and watershed services. Natural and wild areas will be preserved due to reduced pressure to clear land for agriculture, plants will be able to co-mingle and proliferate in numerous interfacing areas leading to increased plant genetic diversity that is climate adapted and resistant to pests and disease. Access to food will be affordable and stable because it has reduced susceptibility to vulnerability and market fluctuations. Individuals, communities, private sector and governments take ownership and provide a social structure that prioritise healthy and ecologically sustainable food production.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is for Chennai to be diverse and resilient, with a continuum of landscapes that support human and ecological development. Conventional efforts focus on boosting agricultural output to produce more food, but today’s challenges – growing populations, shrinking forests and farms, rural to urban migration, corporate dominance, and  climate change – demand a new approach. We urgently need to transition to a more sustainable food system that produces more, with more socio-economic benefits and with less environmental consequences. The food system is in resonance with patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies, and the interrelationships are in synergy with each other such that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It minimises waste, human labour, and energy input by choosing details that require minimum care, are regenerative naturally, and interdependent. 

People & Relationship to food and land: Our Vision rebalances the role of cultural traditions and indigenous knowledge in a way that enhances diversity, resilience, and synergies. People have an understanding of where their food comes from. Not only do they choose foods that they grow in home gardens and family farms, they are more mindful of what they eat. They choose foods that have relatively lower greenhouse gas emissions throughout their supply chain, not just in transport. As a bottom-up, grassroots paradigm for sustainable rural development, agroecology empowers people to become their own agents of change. We seek to build a food system that recognises the contribution of women to food production, biodiversity, and household nutrition.

“I live and work in Madurai, which has provided me career opportunities that Javadumalai will never provide. But I have an emotional connection with the forests and my land. I hope my children also have the same relationship.” - 33 yo man with PhD

Nutrition & Health: People have access to nutritious, safe and affordable foods, thanks to the diversity in foods suitable to the climactic, geographic, cultural, and income diversity. Millets and dry-land varieties of rice and pulses are suitable for small holding farms and do not require irrigation. Root and tuber crops would provide nutrition, food and income security, as well as enhance climate resilience. Aquatic plants, such as lotus, chestnut, watercress, and even water hyacinth, have proteins and minerals comparable to some animal proteins, and could be included in the culinary mix as nutrition supplements.

“India has not solved its calorie problem. More than 70% of its population depends on the public food system for its staples. Tamil Nadu should introduce more complex carbohydrates as well as enhance the quality of its products” - Jean Dreze, economist

Environment: Forests and water systems would be envisioned as sources of food, thus ensuring their protection from land use changes and pollution. The Sholas are a biodiversity hotspots, with the forests and grasslands forming a unique system of water towers where six springs that feed the Cauvery river originate. Aquatic biomes would be protected by increased plantation of mangrove forests, as well as working upstream to the springs. Growing kelp, seaweed, select tubers, and fish could greatly enhance the availability of nutritious foods. 

“35 years ago I used to run away from people like you. Tribal farmers have been cheated on so many occasions by people from the city and plains. But I realise that I must work with you to save our forests and rivers. We cannot do it by ourselves” - 72 yo farmer, male


Food production landscapes: Farms, crops, landscapes, and livestock are organised to reap maximum benefits from the interdependence of plants, animals, and humans. The system is designed to enhance diversity by integrating horizontal and vertical layers with canopy, shrub, soil surface, rhizosphere, and vines. It also creates more interfaces, which is where biodiversity is enriched, such as farm-forest buffers, biofences. The food production landscapes are a continuum, thus choosing to harvest products that are naturally present. Thus, farms are complemented by forests, rivers and sea as spaces where food is produced. 

“There is no money in agriculture but I have grown old amidst the forests and hills. I cannot imagine living elsewhere, but my children and grandchildren want more than these hills can provide” - 65 yo farmer


Waste & Use of resources: Agroecology imitates natural ecosystems, which support biological processes that drive the recycling of nutrients, biomass and water within production systems, thereby increasing resource-use efficiency and minimising waste and pollution. Recycling can take place at homes, farms, and within landscapes, through diversification and building of synergies between different components and activities. For example, agroforestry systems that include deep rooting trees can capture nutrients lost beyond the roots of annual crops. Crop–livestock systems promote recycling of organic materials by using manure for composting or directly as fertiliser, and crop residues and by-products as livestock feed. In urban areas, food and human waste can be used to processed to produce energy to replace fossil fuels. Recycling delivers multiple benefits by closing cycles and reducing waste that translates into lower dependency on external resources, increasing the autonomy of producers and reducing their vulnerability to market and climate shocks. 

“I never thought Chennai residents would manage their own waste. I am pleasantly surprised that the government adopted decentralised waste management and so many residents are composting their bio waste” - 42 yo waste worker, male


Climate change & Resilience:  Diversified systems have a greater capacity to recover from weather  disturbances, such as droughts, and to resist pest attacks. By adopting agroecological practices, our food landscapes promote the organisms to self-regulate against diseases. Food producers are also better able to reduce their vulnerabilities to failures of single crops, livestock or prices. Our Vision seeks to design a diversified food system that selectively combines annual and perennial crops, livestock and aquatic animals, trees, soils, water and other components on farm, forests and urban landscapes to enhance synergies in the context of an increasingly changing climate.

“I hope robots replace hard labour in agriculture that women are burdened with” - Lady teacher in a tribal community 


Economics: Family and small farmers/ food producers have access to markets that support agro ecological products and value nutrition. Rural women are able to form producer cooperatives to provide them autonomy and income security. Agroecology helps food producers replace petrochemical-based inputs with natural and free inputs, thus reducing costs and environmental impacts. Information Technology supports the democratisation and equity of food production. For instance, back breaking work typically performed by women can be automated, thus freeing them to engage in higher value work. 

“I know how to grow crops. If the government encourages local markets, the agriculture problem can be fixed. Now I am forced to sell to a trader at whatever price he quotes” - 40 yo farmer, female


Systems/ Governance: Public policy provides the appropriate incentives and support needed to evolve the food system that provides food and climate security, and is sustainable, and regenerative. Subsidies and institutional structures encourage farm-forest continuums, minimum waste and energy inputs, and home food and forest habitats. People are also able to access a diverse basket of foods through the public food distribution system. Policy creates an enabling environment through incentives and subsidies that favour the procurement of agroecological products, advocates for the nutritional value of products, and the adoption of agroecological practices. Institutional innovations enable food producers to obtain certification.

“The public system is among the best in the country. But the market will take over as the primary source of food” - Senior bureaucrat


“The Tamil Nadu government is very motivated by successful pilots. It shows vision, and our politicians take great pride in being forerunners for food and education programmes” - Mid-level bureaucrat

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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