Coarse correction

Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

Coarse correction

Down to Earth  
Photograph by Prashant Ravi
Millets are the answer to water-stressed north-western India

The drought has thrown into relief India's reliance on groundwater to boost foodgrain production. Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh are growing more than the water resources there can sustain. The three states contribute 70-80 per cent of the rice and wheat procured in India. These areas also receive less rainfall than eastern states of Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa, said Pramod Kumar, head of the Agricultural Development and Rural Transformation Centre at the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bengaluru.

Sixty per cent of agriculture in India is on dry land. "We need a crop that needs minimal irrigation. Millets are an answer," said P V Satheesh, director of the Deccan Development Society that works with farmers in Andhra Pradesh and national convener of the Millets Network of India.Paddy is suited to a region with 1,200-1,300 mm rainfall per season, while 350-500 mm rainfall is enough for millets. Maize, soy, chick-pea, cow-pea and barseem (a fodder crop) are other options. Their roots grow faster, so they absorb more moisture from a wider area, explained P S Deshmukh, emeritus scientist at the division of plant physiology at the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (iari).

Eastern India that receives more rain is not optimally using it to grow paddy.

Back to the future
North-western India was not always doing water-intensive farming. Before the 1960s paddy was not sown in Punjab and Haryana; maize, pulses, oilseeds and sugarcane were the preferred kharif crops. In the rabi season, however, wheat was the main crop. "We had so much arhar, gram and pea that labourers would not take them as wages. They were so cheap," said Hari Achal Singh of Pratapgarh district in Uttar Pradesh.

The turnaround came in the 1970s. "Since the government's focus was on achieving self-sufficiency in food, it procured wheat and paddy at a higher price. But nobody thought of problems like depleting groundwater then," said Pramod Kumar. Today rice and wheat constitute 40 per cent of the foodgrain procured in India. The green revolution pushed technology for rice and wheat, so their yield was better ensured than that of millets and pulses, said T Haque, former chairperson of the Commission for Agriculture Crops and Prices.

In 2002, Punjab started contract farming for over 10 crops to shift farmers' focus away from rice and wheat. "But you can't force farmers to adopt different crops unless they are profitable. Mechanical operations are available for rice and wheat; other crops need labour, which is not easily available in the north-west," said Pramod Kumar.

The government has schemes like the Integrated Programme for Improvement of Oilseeds, Pulses and Maize, and an integrated cereal development programme for promoting millets and other dry land crops. The main problem is demand for these crops, pointed out Narendra Bahadur Singh, agriculture commissioner in the Union agriculture ministry. People do not want to eat coarse cereals, except in Maharashtra.

Demand is determined by price. "If a person is getting rice for Rs 2 a kg under the public distribution system (pds), why will he go for sorghum at Rs 6 per kg?" asked Haque. "We have proposed to the Andhra Pradesh government that it should give five kg of millets through pds," said Satheesh.

In recent years the msp for millets and pulses has gone up, but the yield is still low. "In the past 30 years, there has not been much research on pulses. We have been able to increase the yield of pulses during this period from 10 million tonnes per year to only 15 million tonnes per year," said Haque.

Whatever drought-resistant and short-duration crops are developed are not reaching farmers. "We as a research institution can only breed varieties. There have to be agencies to disseminate them," said K V Prabhu, head of the genetics division of iari.

The National Seeds Corporation, the seed production and marketing agency under the agriculture ministry, said it stores such seeds in small quantities. In some areas farmers have their traditional seed banks. "People exchange seeds or give it to others on loan. If we depend on the government, we will not reap anything," said Vijay Jadhani, convenor of the Beej Bachao Andolan.

Additional inputs by Alok Gupta in Jharkhand and Amarjyoti Borah in Assam

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