From Assam to Nagaland to Meghalaya, an army of 100 ‘green commandos’ — between the ages 18-30 — are going from village-to-village and school-to-school – to spread knowledge about local foodisms, bust myths about organic farming and revolutionalise the way the region eats.
A report published in the The Indian Express stated that Spread NE (Society for Promotion of Rural Economy & Agricultural Development, Northeast), an NGO started by Samir Bordoloi (of Jorhat in Assam), has one objective: To get local people to eat local food from local resources. From January 2017, the organisation has been holding three-day camps that gives youngsters hands-on training in organic farming up on a hill in Sonapur off Guwahati. Called the Farm Learning Centre, complete with a fishery and a food forest, this is one of the six model organic farms created by Bordoloi in the North East. The others are at Jorhat and Tinsukia in Assam, Dimapur and Jaluki in Nagaland, and Imphal in Manipur.
Bordoloi, who won the Agri-preneur of the Country Award in 2017 conferred by MANAGE Hyderabad and the Government of India, feels that when it comes to indigenous food, the North East has a “whole lot of potential”.
The report further quoted Bordoloi as saying, “Take Assam for example, you just need to cast fishing net, and there will be delicious fish on your plate. Step into your backyard and you will get yummy, healthy herbs. Here, nature feeds us.” The ‘agripreneur’ or ‘agriculture-entrepreneur’ (who insists on calling himself a ‘farmer’) is of the opinion that this is the region’s biggest advantage and the only way farmers can become “independent self-sustaining entities” again. “Food is the biggest industry in India with farmers as the main stakeholders. And yet, they are the poorest,” he rues.
While Spread NE, which started in 2014, looks into revitalising the indigenous food habits of the local populace, its ramifications are larger: Farmer independence, alternative livelihood skills, youth employment, etc. Today, the NGO is working in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Manipur and Assam and has created three farmer cooperatives, adopted 60 schools, deployed 110 active ‘Green Commandos’, and has more than 1,500 women members working under it.
The first time Ittisha Sarah — a 25-year-old resident of Guwahati — used a koor (a heavy-duty spade), she did it effortlessly. She was with a group of 20, in a hill in Sonapur, about 15 km from Guwahati, planting saplings. “Digging and planting in silence — that was the mandate,” she says. Now when she looks back, she realises that it was probably “a sense of zeal” — instilled by “just being in nature”— that made the process of wearing gum boots, using a koor, digging a pit and planting saplings so “effortless.” “Of course, it is hard work, but somehow when you are there you don’t feel it is,” she says.
Since May 2018, Sarah is a certified ‘Green Commando’ — a new-age farmer, if you will, whose primary aim is to bring back to the plates of the population, healthy, wholesome, indigenous local food. Prerona Probor Gogoi, a 27-year-old technical officer at the National Food Security Mission in Dibrugarh, devotes his second and fourth Saturdays “to the community.” He, too, is a ‘Green Commando’, and has adopted a local school where he teaches kids how to make vermicompost beds, rustle up bio-pesticides and grow vegetable patches at home.
Both Sarah and Gogoi are products of Spread NE. Spread NE’s three-day farming schools — which Gogoi and Sarah were a part of — aim at producing agents of changes who bridge urban-rural gap, connect farmers to consumers and teach younger children and women the benefits of setting up organic nutrition gardens in individual homes as well as schools.
Bordoloi concludes by saying, “When an Assamese child goes to school, he learns about celery and lettuce, but he won’t’ know what manimuni (a popular indigenous herb in Assam) is,” he says, “You can teach kids the value of what they are eating by teaching them how to grow it. The feeling you get when you eat a tomato you have grown with your hands is something else.”