Despite their glorious past, millets have been sidelined in farms and on food plates over the years
Minor millets like little, kodo and foxtail were once the major staple and central to Indian tribal culture, especially in rainfed areas. But over the years, penetration of high-yield commercial crops and lack of marketing support has diminished the demand of millets.
In recent years, Odisha has taken strides to empower tribal farmers to revalorise and create an enabling ecosystem to assert the value of these ancient grains that have been part of the human food system since time immemorial.
A scene from the eastern state’s rural area illustrates this: It is early morning in Chendijhila, a tribal village in the Eastern Ghats of Odisha’s Koraput district, located over 530 kilometres from the state capital Bhubaneswar.
Sunamani Paraja, a 42-year-old Adivasi woman, is meticulously packing traditional farm equipment such as sickle, spade and axe. She is all set to visit her farm, situated around 0.5 km from the village.
“Today, I will rebuild the fence of our farm. Panicles of suan (little millet) are maturing now. And it is attracting livestock,” Sunamani explained.
On her way to the farm, when this writer asked what she would eat during the afternoon, Sunamani pointed to a tiffin container. “My husband has already left for the farm. Around 12 noon, we will eat suan bhat (little millet rice), kuloth dali (horse gram dal) and boiled greens,” she replied.
“We also have mandia pej (ragi gruel), which is prepared from finger millet flour, broken rice and maize. This pej quenches our thirst, keeps the body cool and gives us the energy to work under the scorching sun,” she added, Mandia pej is the most popular millet recipe among all the major tribal communities in Koraput.
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Sunamani’s husband, Damu, recalled days when he was young and used to work with his parents in the farm — growing nine varieties of finger millet, seven varieties of little millet, six of foxtail millet and five of barnyard millet.
“Each variety is different in terms of colour, grain size, aroma and taste. Some mature early while some need longer duration,” said Damu, adding, “These millets were mostly intercropped with maize, tubers and pulses. Harvest time for each crop was different.”
“Most of the millets are short duration crops and thrive well in our hilly terrain. They are less labour intensive, do not require chemicals and can grow even if rainfall is scanty or irregular,” Laba Paroja, sarpanch at Kundri Panchayat in Kundra block, said.
Foxtail millet matures in 65-70 days, the sarpanch added. “It can be planted when it is too late to plant most other crops.”
The tale of Sunani, Damu and Laba mirrors hundreds of thousands of tribal farmers in Koraput district, who have been traditionally growing millets as it occupies a substantial part of their diets and crop systems. Tribal communities have intrinsic associations with millets since it is deeply rooted in their religion, festivals, cuisine and subsistence farming.
Among the Paroja tribal community, for instance, millet cakes are offered to spirits during Puspuni, the full moon night day that falls in December-January, according to the Odia calendar. These cakes are ritually fed to women after conceiving.
Similarly, the Durua tribal people use fermented beverages prepared from little millet locally known as ‘Landa’. They serve landa to their guests and relatives during festivals and ceremonies.
A Durua tribal elder said the traditional process of brewing landa from little millet involves meticulous steps. First, little millet rice is cooked. After that, rice is wrapped in siali leaves and kept in a dark place in the house.
After four days, the colour of rice becomes pink. Then the rice is mixed with water. The preparation is stocked for about three to four days for fermentation. After that the beverage is ready for consumption.
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Foxtail, barnyard and finger millet have been mentioned in the Yajurveda, one of the oldest texts of India. This indicates that millet consumption was widespread, pre-dating to the Indian Bronze Age (4,500 BC).
Little millet has been cultivated in Odisha since the Neolithic Period. It is widely grown in the hills of the Eastern Ghats and the Chotanagpur Plateau. It has smaller panicles and seeds. It matures quickly and withstands both drought and waterlogging conditions.
But despite their glorious past, millets have been sidelined in farms and on food plates over the years.
Until five decades ago, millets were the major grain in India. They made up around 40 per cent of all cultivated grains, contributing more than wheat and rice before the Green Revolution.
However, post the 1960s, the production of paddy doubled and wheat tripled. Lack of incentive support for production and minimum support price also demotivated farmers, which eventually reduced the cropping area under millet cultivation.
“For years, government policies have focused on commercial crops with heavy input subsidies,” said Khader Valli, independent scientist also known as India’s ‘Millet Man.’ This has promoted monoculture farming practices that shrinked the traditional crop diversity, he pointed out.
Between 1950-51 and 2018-19, the area under millet cultivation declined by 41.65 per cent. Another study revealed that millet cultivation dropped to 15 million hectares in 2021 from 35 million hectares in 1960.
Low social status attached to millets as poor man’s food also affected the consumption, especially among the younger generation in tribal and rural areas. The consumption of ragi in India declined by 47 per cent and intake of other minor millets by 83 per cent in the last five decades, according to a research study by Dhan Foundation, a professional development organisation.
The impact of replacing millets in staple diet and losing traditional seed diversities with high value crops have been manifold among the small and marginal farmers.
First, it has increased farmers’ dependency on high yield variety seeds that require expensive chemical inputs. Second, switching from traditional methods of diversified cropping patterns to mono-cropping has worsened food and nutritional security. Third, the ever-changing climate especially in the rainfed and dry land areas has increased farmer’s vulnerability and resulted in crop loss and poor crop yield.
People perceived millet as poor man’s food for a long period of time, according to R Balakrishnan, chief adviser to the chief minister of Odisha. “India is importing oats from foreign countries. But we forgot that millet is Aadi Anna (ancient grains). It is the crop of culture. Without millet, the history of humankind will remain incomplete.”
There are around nine types of millets predominantly grown in India, such as barnyard, finger, pearl, foxtail, sorghum, little, proso, kodo and browntop. Out of these, the provision of minimum support price (MSP) is available only for pearl, finger and sorghum. Other minor millets are not included under MSP.
For instance, little millet is rich in fibre, high in antioxidant properties and micro-nutrients and highly suitable for rainfed as well as dryland conditions. Similarly, foxtail millet is drought-resilient because of its early maturity characteristics.
Due to its quick growth, it can be grown as a short-term crop. It is adapted to a wide range of elevations, soils and temperatures. It is rich in protein and minerals such as copper and iron.
Epidemiological studies have shown that diets rich in minor millets are protective against non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Millets are good for people who are gluten-intolerant.
But in the last two decades, little and foxtail millets hardly received any attention in the policy discourse. In fact, they were not even part of many formal surveys till very recently. There has been a lack of research and development intervention. Lack of minimum support price also forced farmers into distress selling.
To ensure farming of little and foxtail millets is remunerative for the farmers, the Odisha Millets Mission (OMM), a flagship programme launched by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment (DA&FE), Government of Odisha, has initiated a benchmark price initiative.
OMM is working in collaboration with the scientists of Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), local farmers and civil society organisations.
For estimation of benchmark price, a comprehensive survey was conducted in Koraput, Nuapada, Gajapati, Rayagada, Kandhamal and Kalahandi districts. It was observed that even though farmers had surplus production of little and foxtail millets, they were not able to sell at a remunerative price since there is no MSP for minor millets.
Once executed, “the benchmark price will encourage farmers to increase production of minor millets and substantially reduce distress sale,” said Arabinda Kumar Padhee, principal-secretary, DA&FE.
Odisha will be the first state to introduce MSP for little and foxtail millets. Hopefully, it will help in designing robust policy instruments and pave the way for revival of these often neglected-crops, Padhee underlined.
The Odisha government has adopted the A2 + FL formula to determine the MSP for little and foxtail millets. This formula takes into account the actual cost in addition to the imputed value of family labour in the production of a crop.
The benchmark price, the principal-secretary said, “will create a supportive environment that will provide long-term dividends ranging from sustainable food, nutrition security, build climate resilience among small-scale farmers to protection of the environment.”
“Apart from foxtail and little millets, the state government should also include other minor millets under MSP,” Sirjit Mishra, professor at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, suggested. Efforts should be made to produce outreach materials in local and tribal dialects on MSP and fair average quality norms, he added.
“Odisha has emerged to have a millet-powered future,” said KRVS Visrda, principal scientist, Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), Hyderabad. IIMR has collaborated with OMM to work towards creation of demand through experimenting millet recipes, awareness building on nutritional profile and health benefits as well as development of improved varieties suitable to local landscapes.
“It (the OMM model) has demonstrated a societal approach to institutional commitment and coordination,” said Pranay Sinha, programme policy officer, south-south cooperation, World Food Programme, New Delhi.
There is a need to promote a holistic approach for south-south collaboration on adapting and improving this comprehensive framework beyond India, he added.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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