‘Entomophagy’ is the practice of eating insects as part of one’s normal diet and the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have perfected this thanks to traditions and recipes handed down over several millennia. Now a group of academics and PhD students at Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU) in Arunachal Pradesh are painstakingly identifying their insects (astonishingly, many of these insects belong to unknown species), figuring out their medicinal and dietary benefits and trying to introduce the rest of the world to the wonders to ‘Entomophagy’. Mohana Basu’s intriguing article in The Print opened our eyes to another hidden aspect of India’s breathtakingly beautiful North-East.

Ms Basu begins by highlighting the experiences that the leader of this research group has had over the past 30 years: “…at the helm of their mission is a woman who has been climbing mountains – literally and figuratively. Jharna Chakroavorty has been working to understand the ancient eating practices of Arunachal and pitching them as solutions that can address the global food security problem. Traversing the vast stretches of tribal lands, and fighting systemic challenges of conducting science in the Northeast, Chakroavorty races against time, as she nears her retirement, to unlock some of the mysteries of the hundreds of species of insects part of the Arunachal’s tribal palettes.

…Nearly two decades ago, the practice piqued her interest when she noticed that students at the university would linger around in the evening underneath street lamps and look for something amid the stones. Curiosity got the better of her. And upon enquiring, she began to learn about the insects that those students consumed.

The first time Chakroavorty applied to the Department of Science and Technology (DST) for funds for studying entomophagy in Arunachal Pradesh was in 2001 – but her proposal was rejected.

“Nobody in India wanted to study this, nor did they see any future in this line of research.” Even within Arunachal, the younger generation shied away from promoting entomophagy, fearing being judged in the modern world.

Not backing down, she applied for a research grant with the International Foundation for Science, which was immediately granted.”

The Print article goes on to detail just how hard it is conduct research on this culturally sensitive subject because: (a) the local tribes are fearful of their insect populations will farmed out of existence if the rest of India took to entomophagy; and (b) and the rest of India is squeamish about eating bugs (even though the same Indians will devour prawns, lobsters and other seafood with relish – a practice that was frowned upon in the West until not too long ago). To illustrate the challenges involved in this sort of breakthrough research, even though the people of Arunachal eat hundreds of different types of insects, Ms Basu of The Print focuses on the stinkbug. In doing so she highlights how limited has been the application of modern science to the practices & problems that have characterized India for centuries:

“On the banks of river Siang, a surefooted Minam picks her way across the multi-hued rocks…She begins to turn them over one by one, searching for a six-legged creature that crawls among these rocks. Within minutes, she finds one, and calls over her lab mates to take a look.

Dissecting the insect on the spot, she explains to them its anatomy.

“Can you smell it?” she asks her colleagues.

A pungent smell is the defining trait of a stinkbug. The bug is a coveted delicacy for the Adi tribe in the state. Minam has been collecting these insects from the Siang riverbed since her childhood, alongside other members of her tribe.

In winters, the number of these insects swell and members of the Adi tribe come looking for them. They have two reasons – The bug’s smell attracts rats, which is what the tribe hunts to eat; and a chutney cooked with hot spices and ginger.

The bug though has a strange side effect that is yet to be explained — hallucinations.

Beltom Perme, a 59-year-old resident of Aying village in Pasighat.

“When it (hallucinations) happened – I started trying to behave like the insect. I was trying to fly and wanted to hide in some dark place,” says Beltom Perme, a 59-year-old resident of Aying village in Pasighat, laughing. He had fever for a couple of days, and experienced nausea.

Far away in Menchukha – one of the last towns of India on the northeastern border – one can find tari among the stones in the river bed. Yapung Yarung, a school teacher, told ThePrint that in this small town too, the insect is considered a delicacy.

“Once my cousin fell sick too. People start acting like the bug, they flinch from bright light – and try to crawl under the table or sofa. One of my cousin’s hallucinations lasted a week….” says Yarung.
And there is no medicine, modern or traditional, that can help treat those who are affected.

“Doctors get irritated when they get patients who got sick because of tari. You will get no cure from them, only curses,” she says.

Usually, local dispensaries keep such patients under observation, give them a saline drip and cover them with a blanket till their hallucinations pass.

Yapung said that her tribe believes such sickness happens if one eats the bug that had not been caught alive.

“I do not know if there is any science behind this,” she says.

But it is not as if the bug affects everyone. “It might be that out of ten people eating the same batch of chutney, one might fall ill. Maybe it has to do with immunity,” says Yapung.

Chakroavorty wants to investigate and go beyond the guess work. And she is joined by her PhD students.

They have much to decode about the stinkbug – first of which is to identify whether it is a distinct species. For over two years now, ZSI Kolkata has been unable to tell Chakroavorty if she has found new species of bugs.” [ZSI stands for the Zoological Survey of India.]

One day, when India’s chemists stop trying to replicate Western drugs and start researching India’s flaura & fauna, they will find a wonder drug with a multi-billion dollar global market. Until such time, we will have to continue investing in Indian companies which do outsourced drug development for Western companies.

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