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In conversation with Zareen Bharucha: How India’s lockdown affected the food chains

Guest posts

Faculty: Science and Engineering
Category: Teaching and research

14 November 2022

Illustration of lockdown experience by Tess Duffin, featuring people inside cramped miniature house

A discussion with researcher Dr Zareen Bharucha on her recent study, exploring how the Covid-19 lockdown in India affected the food chain and acted as a catalyst for a change of mindset, leaning towards a potentially more sustainable future.

Interview and illustrations by Cambridge School of Art Illustration student, Tess Duffin.

Hello Zareen. Could you give me a short overview of your study?

What we did was conduct interviews with a range of stakeholders involved in the food system. From consumers all the way through to farmers and everyone involved in the supply chain in between, food businesses, everything from supermarkets to a small fruit and veg stall and informal retailers. As well as with people who were involved in distribution or processing logistics. Who actually sells most of the food?

We tried to get views from across the whole food chain on how the shock of the lockdown in India affected the way people were doing things or changed the way we were doing things and what we were trying to look at is whether COVID acted as a game changer.

So, a game changer, something that people are exploring in the sustainability literature as whether they can be catalysts to sustainability, by disrupting the status quo enough that people start questioning the underlying values. Driving things until enough of a disruption that people kind of stop and think, the way we've been doing things sucks!”

Discussing more about the lockdown in India and its effects on the way people sourced food and as a potential catalyst for a change of mindset.

“The lockdown in India was pretty unique in that there was no advance warning really, just overnight, everything was locked down.   There was no there was no warning or arrangements made for businesses or farmers getting food to the market or for people to leave the House to get food. So it was quite extreme. People who depended on those food sales for either their day-to-day food or their day-to-day living really suffered for the first couple of days.

But then people started making their own arrangements, pooling resources to contact farmers directly for the first time, doing door to door sales or fruit and veg for the first time, and also thinking a little bit about the social justice and nutrition angle of what they were eating. They would like to eat good food, not just quick food, not convenience food, because they were in the pandemic and everyone's health was at the top of their minds. I think for the first time they also started thinking about the social justice angle of how dependent farmers are on a functional food chain, and how they just got suddenly dropped by this government lockdown that that was very, very hastily done and in an unplanned way.

Image to illustrate India's food system, with figures carrying oversize vegetables

Illustration by Tess Duffin

So, fundamentally [we found a revision of people’s values. During the first lockdown, even here, social media was full of “nature is healing” and “our civilization is the disease”. That kind of line of thinking. I don't think anything has come out of that particularly, but at least people stopped to think about how their lives were structured and whether they could do anything fundamentally different, so our interviews focused not just on what happened during the lockdown, but what people thought about it

I think everybody is remotely interested in sustainability, I was really, really struck by all that “Nature is healing” stuff. It was just very significant to me how if daily life grinds to a standstill and people have just a tiny little bit of space, they start noticing nature. But our daily lives don't give us that space. Not intentionally, but I think that's what's needed to keep capitalism going so you don't have that time and space and you're constantly looking for a fix. Buying, selling, doing rather than just being. And when we were in the lockdown we just suddenly had 10 minutes, and of course, now all that's gone. You know, from a research point of view, it's interesting how fragile that was.”

What happens next? How can your findings now be used to educate and inform people?

We’ll be writing a couple of academic papers outlining our findings, we did it very closely with our partners in India who are in Bangalore and I think they may produce things like a policy brief or research brief and one particularly helpful thing that we're thinking about doing is writing a guide for new food businesses because a lot of people, particularly those who had some experience with [sourcing food] before, set up little initiatives that could easily become new and exciting and sustainable food ventures. But they don't necessarily have the experience of how to make that formal and how to navigate with the existing bureaucracy of rules regulation, licensing procedures. So it might be nice to do a guide to try and help them to navigate all that while still remaining sustainable.”

What drew you to this particular field of research and what challenged or questions were you setting out to address?

I'm really interested in how things change. I think before, my research was mainly interested in critiquing how things are very unsustainable, and critiquing various processes and ways of doing things, and now I'm more interested in looking at how things change for the better.”

For more beautiful designs, visit illustrator Tess Duffin's portfolio website.


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