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Transforming the food system through diverse localized agro-ecological frameworks for climate resilience and nutritional security in India

By adopting agro-ecological diversity as the organizing principle we are effecting a paradigm shift for a nourishing food future

Photo of Bindu Mohanty
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Lead Applicant Organization Name


Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 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.

WASSAN supports India’s biggest ecosystem of 600 organizations working on sustainable agriculture. Its partners are: Networks of NGOs, Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) and other institutions: WASSAN is the secretariat for the following national networks of organizations that pursue allied goals: Revitalization of Rainfed Agriculture Network Consortium of System of Rice Intensification Rainfed Livestock Network Low Carbon Farming Network Farmers’ Cooperatives in rainfed agriculture Over 100 CBOs that help implement state-level programs such as the Odisha Millet Mission and the Andhra Pradesh Drought Mitigation Project Governmental institutions for collaboration on policies for a shared vision of agricultural resilience in the states of: Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Private Limited Companies that support resilient agriculture such as Manyam Grains, Urvii Khadyam and Safe Harvest

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?


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

The Central Tribal Belt of India. Our vision pertains to 29 tribal districts in 10 states

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

As we are committed to environmental justice and social justice, WASSAN’s work has focussed on this area as it has been in the shadow zone of development. These tribal districts that WASSAN works with faces high disparity in economic improvement compared to other regions within the state.

WASSAN’s founding vision is to  “entrench participatory processes (such as capacity building, institutional development, networking and advocacy) through a network approach that strengthen natural resources management practices to secure agriculture-based livelihoods of deprived communities.” Equity, participation of all (including full participation of indigenous people and women), collaboration, team-work, transparency and accountability are WASSAN’s core values, which are made operational in relating to our stakeholders and the local tribes.  

As a network-based organization, WASSAN maintains active relations and collaborates with 100 NGOs in the project area. Some of these NGOs working in the area for more than 25 years, and together they have a team of over 1,000 people who work closely with the indigenous tribes in the area using participatory rural development processes. This system allows us to understand the potential and challenges of both the agro-ecosystem and the socio-cultural system. WASSAN, through comprehensive field-work among the tribal communities has mapped socio-cultural traits, development indicators, on to the agro-climatic zones of this area to develop a comprehensive understanding of the place. 

Our projects in the area are human-centered taking into account the needs and aspirations of the local people while finding technologically appropriate and financially viable solutions for development in terms of appropriate livelihoods and food security. In response to the needs of the local communities, we also provide sustainable and equitable WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) services as  an integral part of livelihoods enhancement process.

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.

Our “Place” of work is about 98,600 sq km in the Central Indian Tribal (CIT) belt, where we want to scale our work to an additional 29 districts in the 10 states of Gujarat, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. 

India is home to the largest tribal population in the world comprising about 9% of the country’s population and 22% of India’s area. Approximately 75% of the total tribal population of India live in the CIT, although compared to the state population, the tribals are a minority. The tribal districts have been neglected by the government in terms of development, and consequently, these communities score low in the Human Development index. About 413 resident tribes in this area are classified as Scheduled Tribes and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups by the government for affirmative action. Sadly, however, this classification has allowed for discrimination and denial of land rights. Nationalization and privatization (by non-tribals) of tribal land in India, the pressures of urbanization and large-scale logging and mining operations, and proselytization by Christianity, threaten the tribal way of life. The region is hilly, with indigenous forests, rich in natural resources and comprises four agro-climatic zones namely, Eastern Plateau and Hills, Central Plateau and Hills, Western Plateau and Hills and Southern Plateau and Hills. (See attached map of these zones).

The tribal communities are different from major ethnic groups in India having distinct cultural traditions, especially in terms of food, dress, and language. Most are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition due to change in their dietary habits and lack of basic sanitation and hygiene. Health facilities in the area are inadequate. Most tribals are small and marginal farmers. The forest tribes are also foragers and supplement their income by selling non-timber forest produce (honey, grasses, bamboos, oils, resins, gums, leaves etc.). The resilience of India’s tribal communities comes from their indigenous knowledge of edible flora and fauna in their ecosystem. The traditional food basket of these tribes consisted of nutritious millets, leafy vegetables and tubers from the forest, indigenous wild fauna and livestock. The government’s public distribution system (PDS) that distributed free wheat and rice to the tribals  eroded the food culture leading to extreme malnutrition. Our vision is to reverse the process by encouraging the cultivation of millets, indigenous livestock, and inland fishery through appropriate development initiatives, financial incentives, and services. Our successful strategies have now been adopted by the governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, and we are ready to take our vision to scale. The agronomic practices we use will increase yields to secure a nourishing food future both for the tribal and non-tribal communities of these 10 states.

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.

The current and future challenges that we face related to each theme are:

Environment: Due to industrialized farming, soils are now infertile, there is water-shortage and loss of biodiversity-many indigenous grains and breeds of livestock are threatened with extinction. In the future, there will be increased vulnerability towards food security in the area as the regenerative capacity of the land will be permanently lost.

Diets: With the state nutrition schemes focussed on quantity and not quality of food, and corporations selling packaged food, even in remote areas, there is a change in diets. The youth especially desire packaged snacks rather than the more nourishing traditional food. This has led to mal-nourishment among the people in these areas. This dietary trend, if unchecked, in 30 years will lead to greater malnutrition and also possibly increased debt as a greater percentage of the household income will go towards purchasing food instead of growing it.  

Economics: The current economic trend in our area is migration of people to urban areas to work as wage-labourers as they cannot generate sufficient income from their farm to live on. If this trend of rural migration continues, the urban density would greatly increase leading to exploitation of unskilled rural people. In the economic sector, infrastructure and enterprise development for climate-resilient agriculture is missing and policy recognition of the same is still scant.

Culture: The vibrant, diverse culture of distinct tribes in our area are in danger of being eroded due to the influence of mainstream urban culture. These cultural traditions, many of which are rooted in the agro-ecological system, may well be lost by 2050 without affirmative practices to protect indigenous rights and cultures. 

Technology: At present, technological research is geared towards further mechanization of agricultural processes that support the needs of large farms. Technologies for processing millets and other edible plants are currently under-developed. In case of livestock, indigenous species are marginalized due to an emphasis of cross breed species through artificial insemination technology. Research and technology into needed localized agro-ecological inputs and practices is lacking. Without government support of needed technological changes, the threat, now and in the future, is the loss of farmland and livelihood opportunities of small and marginal farmers. 

Policies: Since 1960s agricultural policies have favoured centralization, hybrid species, mono-cropping, and market-driven agriculture.  If this trend continues India’s rich biodiversity of field crops, edible plants, and livestock breeds will be lost forever.

The above themes are interconnected and need to be equally addressed. However, the current lack of research and supportive policies is the biggest challenge to our proposed food system. Better policies can influence all the other “themes” for a nourishing food future.

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

We will address the identified challenges as described below:

Environment: The regenerative capacity of the land and native biodiversity will be enhanced by innovating on traditional agronomic practices developed in the localized agro-ecological system and supporting them with a package of services and financial investments. Climate change adaptation methods to cope with erratic rainfall include integrated watershed management and protective irrigation as well as development of Indigenous seed systems for storage and distribution so that farmers have access to different seeds varieties suited for changes in the start of the monsoon.

Diets: By 2050, there will be a shift in diets to nutritious climate-resilient crops due to consumption of traditional millets, pulses, oilseeds and food from indigenous breeds of livestock. Surplus food will be distributed regionally through state-supported nutritional schemes to serve 40% of the future state population. The dietary focus will be nutritional security rather than food security measured by calories. The role of the state government is crucial to achieve this dietary vision. 

Economics: Local production, processing and consumption of food will create new jobs for the youth and ensure job security for future generations. Agricultural incomes can also be doubled if equitable pricing policies ensure that producers get 40-50% of the profits on imperishable products. The current trend of women organized in self-help groups to earn additional income from food-processing will increase in the future. 

Culture: By preserving traditional diets, indigenous cultures, festivals and religious rituals, we will preserve the traditional food varieties associated with this culture. 

Technology: We are dialoguing with research institutes to convince them of the need to develop and make accessible to small and marginal farmers, early warning systems for weather changes and tools to measure soil moisture. Information technology will be greatly useful in improving access to provide access to all in the farming sector. 

Policies: We are addressing the need for supportive policies (in terms of new policies and changes in current subsidies) by having key government institutions namely the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Dairy & Fisheries, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Ministry of Women and Child Development recognize the need for our vision. At the state-level, we address this challenge by convincing the government not to have siloed approaches to policy-making but to provide an integrated policy package that will help the agricultural sector in a climate-altered future.  

 Research and an integrated policy package that benefits a decentralized food system and secures the livelihood of key actors in the system will help us the most in addressing the challenges we have identified.  

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.

By 2050, the Central Tribal Belt of India will comprise resilient communities and localized agro-ecosystem that can cope with climate change. Instead of being considered backward and undeveloped as is currently the case, this region would be an example of sustainable localized development that enhances both the agro-ecosystem and the socio-cultural system. The tribal people would have justified pride in their achievements, having successfully embraced technological advances and innovations without sacrificing their cultural heritage. 

In the farms, cropping system diversity including intercropping, maintaining stock for biodiversity, including indigenous breeds of livestock, and climate-resilient crops like millets for the market will ensure climate change resilience. There will be increased yields due to innovations based on scientific research married to indigenous knowledge. Integrated farming practices in small and marginal farms will ensure that there is no agricultural waste as all resources are recycled within the agro-ecosystem as compost or feed for livestock. Such integrated practices and the size of the farms will make farming manageable, and hence future generations of both men and women will continue to farm, instead of migrating to cities over jobs. It is entirely possible that by 2050 entrepreneurs would have innovated affordable machinery run on renewable energy so that farm work is not perceived as a drudgery. Economic policies supporting cooperative structures will allow all farmers to use such machines through Farmers’ Producers’ Associations. Decentralized food processing and distribution mechanisms will reduce wastage and transport costs. 

In short, the region will be both environmentally resilient and also socio-culturally resilient due to economically-empowered and technologically-savvy thriving tribal communities.

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

In the 1960s, the Green Revolution ensured food security for India, a newly independent country that had experienced famines. In the mid 21st century, India as a highly climate-vulnerable country with a huge malnourished population needs a new vision: A vision of nutritional security where the diversity of its agro-ecosystems and its tribal cultures continues to thrive despite climate change and have the resilience to regenerate themselves. Our vision for a food system for 2050 is for the tribes of the Central Tribal Belt of India and rooted in localized agro-ecosystems. We seek to effect a paradigm shift in the current food system where the localized agro-ecosystem determines the economic policy processes and technological innovations as opposed to the current scenario where industrial interests are imposed on the agro-ecosystem.

Our vision is rooted in the humility  that recognizes and seeks to strengthen the resilience of local agro-ecological systems in tribal rainfed areas. Agro-ecosystems are naturally resilient due to self-regulating feedback loops. Tribals still have the indigenous knowledge to observe the visible feedback and intelligently respond to the system. This knowledge serves as the foundation of our vision. By adopting an integrated agro-ecological framework, that is always evolving and dynamically adjusted to the local conditions, and by understanding the connections between agro-ecological systems and socio-cultural systems,  we aim to transform the inter-related systems of culture (including diets), economy and industry and influence policies to support this transformation.

Our aim is to scale our work, currently focussed primarily in 20 districts to an additional 29 districts by offering, with the help of our stakeholders, particularly influential government institutions, a package of decentralized services to help in improved natural resource management and integrated farming.

Our strategy for transformation is to repeatedly demonstrate the success of our practices through pilots to convince researchers and policy-makers of the need to take up a bottom-up approach to first understand agro-ecological frameworks and then frame policies that favour decentralized strategies. WASSAN has documented case-studies on multiple themes related to the issue including macro economic analysis, soil health and conservation, land use and common lands, cropping patterns and food security issues, seed and other inputs, local grains, inland fisheries, indigenous livestock, water resources and irrigation, agricultural research and extension, crop-livestock interactions, credit and financial services and markets, which it is now poised to take to scale as an integrated approach to farming.  Due to our proven strategies, in the field of millets in Odisha and natural farming in Andhra Pradesh many government institutions are open to using our decentralized agro-ecological practices. WASSAN’s approach to its agricultural vision includes enabling an ecosystem of capable and diverse stakeholders from policy-makes and entrepreneurs to producers and consumers. Participatory project design that ensures collaboration and ownership of the programme by the community has been central to all our projects.

Our agro-ecological approach starts with the individual farm and farmer but then recognizing the interconnections of the agro-ecological system, integrates water resources, landscape  management, natural resource management, and regional livestock management. Specifically, in terms of the environment, WASSAN offers a package of integrated services for participatory watershed management by communities dependent on natural resources and rain-fed agriculture.

In terms of technology, our vision encompasses multiple strategies: First, we seek to make technological choices that are appropriate to the interconnected agro-ecological and socio-cultural systems. This includes developing indigenous technical options; Second, given our values of equity and participation, we seek through policy advocacy on pricing mechanisms, to make current technology affordable; Third, we seek to promote economic  decentralization and cooperatively-owned and gender-equitable machines; And lastly, given that the climate is to be increasingly erratic in the future, we impress upon government research institutes for the need to continually evolve technologies that would help farmers, such as tools for measuring soil moisture, and more accurate prediction of the weather, especially the start of the monsoon. 

In terms of policies that would support our vision, WASSAN has consistently worked on bringing greater equity to the quantum of public investments in rainfed agro-ecological systems. We advocate that investments into participatory watershed development and management of indigenous crops and livestock  be equal to the financial investments that have gone into industrial agriculture. Our vision for the future is to mobilize larger public investments for scaling successful pilot initiatives and for a comprehensive package of integrated policies.

Our vision for an agricultural-economy is to focus on local agro-based livelihoods that seek to double the agricultural income of small and marginal farmers, alleviate farmers’ distress, and stem urban migration. Our economic vision is related to traditional diets and cultural practices reviving local cuisine that strengthens the local economy while meeting nutritional needs of the people. We accept that human desires for certain types of food is not likely to be met in the future, and thus a change in food habits is also required. For this, we nudge people to try different recipes through food festivals and recipe contests, as we did in our Odisha Millet Mission programme. This programme innovated on traditional recipes by substituting rice and wheat with millets and also made popular fast-food items such as pizzas and burgers using millets for the urban market. Our vision for the next 30 years is to adapt and replicate such successes throughout our project area. 

Our vision for regenerative localized agro-ecosystems has been tested and refined over ten years in collaboration with out network of 600 organizations from different sectors such as development NGOs , like Pradan and AKRSP, representatives of Farmers Producers Associations, Government research organizations CRIDA and NCDS, entrepreneurs for retail and processing committed to safe food such as Urvii Khadyam and Safe Harvest. There is a natural alignment between WASSAN’s values and the values of Renewability, Resilience, Equity, Diversity, Healthfulness and Interconnectedness.

Starting with the tribal communities we used participatory human-centered design approaches to  understand what is at stake for each actor or influencer in the food system. Both visioning and Implementation of our projects is based on stakeholder consultative workshops such as that done for the Odisha Millet Mission (see attached file). We  systematically map potential challenges, pitfalls, and inevitable trade-offs, particularly recognizing the tension between achieving food security by taking a few crops to scale and the consequent loss of biodiversity and environmental resilience. In this context, farmers informed us that they have a traditional practice of growing both for the market and for household consumption. So, for household consumption, we encourage them to grow a variety of crops and thus preserve the biodiversity. We review the responsibility of each stakeholder given our understanding the interconnectedness of the various elements of the food system. We know that the success of our vision for 2050 would depend on the collaboration of farmers, entrepreneurs, researchers, policy-makers development agencies and consumers. We are working with state governments for needed policy changes and new policies to ensure that our vision would be financially feasible and technologically viable.

Beyond the project area, our vision also includes networking for seeding the concept to other regions of the country where such a food system would be appropriate. We feel that the following strategies would be needed for scaling up our work:

Documenting successful local adaptation and innovations in each agro-ecological region

Capacity building of thousands of practicing farmer-resource persons as trainers

Evolving scalable processes such as decentralizing implementation to an NGO in each block (sub-division of a district)

Empowering institutions of local communities through participatory processes to ensure sustainability.  

Engaging with the scientific community to document local indigenous knowledge determined by techniques such as participatory research on seed variety, intercropping etc. and making it an iterative research process.

Engaging with policy processes at the district, state and national levels.

Actively engaging with media on the subject at regional and national levels. 

To conclude, we are aware that our vision requires all the actors and influencers of the food system, especially policy-makers in the government, to move away from industrial agriculture and embrace this new way of thinking of working with the existing agro-ecological food systems. In our vision, decentralization is key to ensure resilience in the food system and create local jobs. Our vision of a localized food system strengthens the inter-connections between agro-ecosystems and socio-cultural systems to ensure a regenerative and nourishing food future. We believe it is an opportune moment to take our vision to scale as in the past few years our  successful agro-ecological approaches are being increasingly accepted, both at the grassroots and at the institutional level of policy-makers.  We are confident that by 2050 we can secure a regenerative and nourishing food future in ten states that account for about 40% of the country’s areas and house 50% of its population.

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Attachments (1)

Some Tribes.pdf

This is a list of the Scheduled Tribes (tribes recognized by the Govt. of India for affirmative action) in our place of work.


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Photo of Trupti Jain

hi Bindu; excellent work. will love to keep in touch. regards

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