Back to farming roots: Odisha reinforced linkages among traditional grains, nutrition, resilience, food sovereignty 

Thousand farmers have been supported by Odisha Millets Mission (OMM) to promote millets through a farm-to-fork approach

By Abhijit Mohanty, Prakash Chandra Mallick
Published: Wednesday 29 November 2023
Photo: iStock__

Kanti Bhoi is still in disbelief every time she visits her flourishing two acres farm located in Thuamul Rampur block under Odisha’s Kalahandi district. At the age of 48 years, she is one of the progressive millet farmers, who has successfully readopted these ancient crops. 

For years, millet was the staple crop among the tribal communities. However, over the years, shifting to cotton farming and other cash crops has reduced cultivation and consumption of millets, which are climate-resilient, low-input crops as well as powerhouse of nutrition.  

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “In the richness of millets, we rediscover ancient wisdom and modern sustenance”, a testament to the resilience of traditional crops. But until a few years ago, millet farming was not remunerative in Odisha. There was lack of support for the farmers, who claimed that many traditional varieties of millets have been lost. 

Odisha is home to 62 scheduled tribes and 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups. For years, millet has been not only an integral part of their food system, but also deeply embedded in their culture, traditions and spiritual beliefs. For the tribal farmers and rainfed communities, the significance of millet is beyond a crop and a grain, rather it’s a way of life for them for years. 

Revalorising millet is a crucial step for these communities as it can strengthen their food security, health, environment, culture and economy. Besides, as climate change poses a prominent challenge of the 21st century, humble millets are emerging as hope for the future.

In Kalahandi district, which has a history of agrarian crisis due to recurrent droughts and erratic rainfall that affects water intensive crops, the tribes are on a mission to return to their farming roots. Bhoi is one of the thousand farmers who have been supported by Odisha Millets Mission (OMM) to promote millets through a farm-to-fork approach.

From providing seeds to promoting improved agronomic practices, ensuring an assured market through minimum support price (MSP) and creating an enabling environment to develop entrepreneurship with a special focus on empowering farmers and women’s collectives, OMM has comprehensively revived millets in the state. 

For instance, women members of the Maa Mangala women self-help group (WSHG) in Karlamunda block used to collectively cultivate cotton five years ago. Initially, for the first three years, the group managed to earn profit. But gradually their profit reduced. “Before cotton cultivation, the soil was soft and fertile,” said Ahalya Sahu, president of WSHG, adding, “after growing cotton, the soil turned hard and lifeless”.

Today, the WSHG members are growing finger millet, kodo and little millet in two hectares of land and selling their produce in local mandis (marlets) at MSP. The plants have a fibrous root system that prevents soil erosion and upholds soil integrity. 

“Millet farming has restored our soil fertility once again,” said Niladri Sahu, a member of the WSHG. Apart from supplementing our household income, the mixed system of millet farming has diversified our food plate, she added. 

The WSHG also prepares a range of millet food items such as ladoos, porridge, sweets, samosas, badas, etc, which has generated a huge demand in the local market. “We are also supplying millet food products to food festivals, workshops and sporting events,” said Sahu. Taking this to the next level, food items prepared from millets grown in Odisha were served to the dignitaries of G20 New Delhi Summit held in September this year. 

With the support of Mission Shakti in collaboration with OMM, WSHGs have been playing a crucial role in drudgery reduction and value addition of millets. These WSHGs have been instrumental in establishment and management of more than 2,000 entreprises like bio-input centres, custom hiring centres, community seed centres, processing units, millet shakti café, millet shakti outlet, millet shakti tiffin centres and take-home ration units. 

“WSHGs-led millet entrepreneurship in Odisha is setting a global benchmark,” said Sujata R Karthikeyan, IAS, commissioner-cum-secratary, Mission Shakti. Millet Shakti Café and outlets have been a big success that have made more than Rs 2 crore turnover, she highlighted.

Recently, Odisha became the first state in the country to organise an International Convention on Millets in Bhubaneswar with the theme ‘Millets — Ancient Grains for Modern Challenges’. The convention celebrated the tribal heritage of millets and highlighted success stories of millet entrepreneurship. It also provided a platform to hold deliberations on investment opportunities in the millet ecosystem. 

“The vibrant global participation of all major stakeholders in the convention has laid the foundation for developing a policy roadmap for the next decade,’’ said Arabinda Kumar Padhee, principal secretary, department of agriculture and farmers’ empowerment. Together, we shape policies that embrace the richness of millets for a healthier and sustainable future, he added.

Mohanty is a development practitioner and a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. Mallick works as an associate state coordinator under Odisha Millets Mission in WASSAN, Bhubaneswar.


Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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