What, exactly, is 'Indian Food'? Can we define it, amidst all the diversity in the land? And does the food of the original inhabitants, the tribals, even fit into the definition we might arrive at? This food, essentially nature-dependant, is all about gathering, the availability and the securing of basic nutrition. Tribal food habits are dictated by the demands of sustenance from beginning to end. Their recipes are aimed at making things edible, things that the urban middle-class cannot even begin to imagine. The words 'delicacy' and 'taste' are not used much in relation to food. Everything depends on availability, say the graphics at one point.

Johar - Welcome to the World explores the intricate relationship the tribals of Jharkhand have with their forests. The film explores their traditional recipes, the medicinal qualities of various herbs, weeds and fruits and their traditional knowledge of sustainable management. The 58-minute documentary, by Nilanjan Bhattacharya, won the Best Narration Award (Written) at the National Film Awards.

By its exploration, the film changes our perspective on India's food culture - typically based on taste, delicacy, nutrition and health needs. We are introduced to a world where food has to be collected directly from the forests, processed indigenously and painstakingly over days and nights to make them edible enough for the people to survive on a day-to-day basis. It is also a world where medicinal herbs were the closest thing to a doctor, but they were available locally and plentifully.

Ineivtably, the film turns to the question - why is Jharkhand poor, and why are its adivasis particularly badly off? It is in the answer to this question that we find how the tribal world is being changed by external influences.

The State accounts for 35 per cent of the country's known coal reserves, 90 per cent of its cooking coal deposits, 40 per cent of the copper, 22 per cent of the iron ore, 90 per cent of the mica and huge deposits of bauxite, quartz and ceramics. All of this is quite enough to provide bountifully for so many others outside the forests, but for the adivasis themselves there seems to be little benefit from this wealth. Instead, aggressive development and wrong-headed conservation policies have damaged the tribals' relationship with their land and pushed them deeper into food insecurity.

Nearly 70 per cent of Jharkhand's rural population faces the prospect of going hungry at some stage during the year. The food supply is assured for only about three to four months, following the harvest in late October and early November. Food supplies tend to run short by the end of winter. The 'starvation period' begins by mid-summer, and, in many cases, continues till the end of October. Though depleted, the forest remains the only source for a large number of tribals in Jharkhand in those adverse 'no food' periods of the year.

Every biosphere reserve in the country is on adivasi land; every major dam since the 1970s has submerged adivasi land; every wildlife sanctuary in India includes at least some adivasi homelands.

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The film points out that every biosphere reserve in the country is on adivasi land; every major dam since the 1970s has submerged adivasi land; every wildlife sanctuary in India includes at least some adivasi homelands; 90 per cent of the mines in India are on adivasi land; nearly 50 per cent of the mineral wealth of the entire country comes from adivasi areas, and yet 80 per cent of the entire adivasi population in India lives below the poverty line. Worst of all, the adivasis are slowly being pushed out of their ancestral lands - forced to migrate for work.

The Forests Rights Act of India, 2006 was a ground-breaking law intended to address some of the failures. It gave legal recognition to the adivasis' rights to the forests and their produce. The film explains that this Act has - in law, if not in practice yet - given more control to manage local forests to the gram sabhas. For example, a forest dweller's family can now own up to four hectares of land. They have gained unrestricted rights of occupation or cultivation and of collection and selling of non-wood forest products.

But the goal of this legislation remains elusive; and the struggle for empowerment is ongoing, literally. Even as this film was being shot, on 15 January 2009 a group of timber smugglers entered the community forest of the Bucha Opa village at night. By the time the village forest protection committee members and other villagers rushed to the forest, they had chopped down three trees. When the villagers surrounded the invaders, they said that they were carrying out the orders of the Forest Department. The villagers were not convinced and, as the discussion became heated, the invaders ran away.

The narrator's voice captures the paradox, "When we reach the location, the villagers still look angry and agitated. They also look proud for having resisted so successfully. As we place the camera on the tripod, they all spontaneously line up before us."

When asked what motivated him to make this unusual film, Bhattacharya says, "While I was making another film Under this Sun on biodiversity and related folk knowledge, I realized that food resources and related knowledge are very significant elements in tribal people's lives. This made me think about a film on the food culture of the tribals. Jharkhand was the obvious choice because of its concentration of 32 adivasi groups in one place. Two Jharkhand-based filmmakers, Meghnath and Bijoo gave me the initial insight to Jharkhand culture."

"In 2008 I met Babu Mathew, then the director of Actionaid India. He instantly agreed to support the project. This film would never have been possible had we not had the protection and guidance of Awadesh Kr. Singh and Niyamat Ansari, two ground level workers of Gram Swaraj Abhijan in Latehar while scouring through the Mao-infested locations in Jharkhand. Niyamat was later killed." Ranu Ghosh has cinematographed the film, Indrajit Das has edited it and Partha Barman has done the sound mixing.

A still from the film.

The camera wanders across the forests of Jharkhand that originally belonged to its original inhabitants - the forests in the villages of Koroa, Parahaiya, Oroa, Asur and Oraon - focusing on the knowledge and the usage of forest produce among the adivasis. It reminds us that the traditional practice of sustainable use of forest resources has resulted in a huge repository of knowledge of the flora and fauna, transmitted over generations. It has taught the adivasis to maintain the forest resources over thousands of years.

The mahua flower, known to have intoxicating effects, is like a symbol of survival for the adivasis, a metaphor for existence and a backbone of their food habits. The flower symbolises the essence and colour of indigenous people's lives in Jharkhand. It is turned into alcohol, eaten as a vegetable and brings money home when sold in the market. It is synonymous with survival. But it is also poisonous, and the film elaborates through the narration and through visuals the trouble the villagers have to go through to remove the poison and make the flower edible.

There are also a few insights into the religious practices of the adivasis. A part of the virgin forest dedicated to gods or goddesses is preserved as the sacred grove, or Sarna. Felling trees here is taboo. The grove symbolises the religious identity of the local people. Another God they worship is Sing Bonga, the 'supreme being' who is the 'maker, master and fosterer of all things living and non-living.' The adivasis believe that He taught human beings how to make rice beer, how to proliferate and how to make the ploughshare. He offered them the knowledge of time, means of avoiding evils, the cure of diseases, and ways to lead an ethical life.

But the din of 'development' appears to be overwhelming this society. A local leader points to a simple example of the profound change adivasis are witnessing. With their forest produce increasingly inaccessible to them, the medicinal herbs are no longer available to cure their injuries and illnesses. Instead, they are forced to trek to the nearest doctor, typically one they cannot afford.