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From coarse grains to health foods – Time to introspect

Debjeet Sarangi and Kavya Chowdhry

Millets have always been part of an eco-cultural system for Kondh tribal communities in Odisha.Kondh communities nurture cultures of sharing and caring, celebrate a relationship with earth and all the life forms that sustain life. Any initiative promoted from outside need to be rooted in the traditional cultures to sustain and promote societal well-being.

In the middle of a region which is being rampaged by mono-cultural eucalyptus plantations, Bt Cotton and external input-intensive agriculture, is Kandhuguda, a village which is a repository of agro-ecological wisdom.Adi Kumruka, a Kondh farmer of Kandhuguda says “Whatever I obtain from my field is more than sufficient. It feeds my family, our community, the birds, the insects and the animals who visit my field. Everyone is full and happy!”

Kondh way of farming
In Kondh way of agriculture, access to land for everyone is ensured. Land is allotted according to the size of the family; if one has a bigger family to feed, they get a larger piece of land. All the households carefully collect seeds over the previous season. Seeds from all the households is collected and kept in the center of the village and equally distributed to all the families to sow. It does not matter if someone was not able to save seeds, because, among the Kondh adivasis, there is a seed for everyone. In this way of life, everyone has access to land and seeds. And, sowing and harvesting are done collectively.

Kondh system of farming is deeply rooted in tradition

The Kondh communities maintain a common village fund,which can be utilized by anyone in times of necessity. The village fund is generated from within the community in the form of food grains, or at times cash, and is used to aid the person in need. What can be seen here is that the Kondh society lives in a way that revolves around an ethos of sharing ones concerns with others and caring for others well-being.

Coarse grains to health-foods
Historically, millets have been grown in poly-cropping systems using agro-ecological methods. In communities like the Kondh adivasis, millets is not merely a grain. It reflects a repository of generations of collective community wisdom.They worship the mountains, the lands, the skies and the forests and their agricultural practices reflect the respect and gratitude they hold for the Dharini Penu – The Mother Earth. For them, millets stand for a diverse vibrant agriculture which sustains and keeps their internal solidarity.

In the 1960s, when the Green Revolution hit the Indian agricultural scene, the land under millets cultivation dropped drastically as all the policy favours went to rice and wheat cultivators. Hybrid seeds, chemical inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilisers were promoted. Millets, then, were called coarse grains only to be consumed by the “poor”.

Millets is not merely a grain. It reflects are pository of generations of collective community wisdom.

These same grains are now being touted as health food and are viewed as silver bullet to tackle the impact of climate change on food security.

In glaring contrast to the world view of this community holding immense ecological agriculture wisdom, is the current agricultural paradigm which has replaced the culture in the word “agriculture” with business – “agribusiness”. One of the ways in which the agri-business model is taking shape around millets is through interventions which are promoting millet supply from rural to urban areas. This supply is a result of a high demand from middle-class urban consumers who are plagued with non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity, seeking solace in consumption of millets as a “health food”. Also, only those millet varieties which have a high demand in urban markets are being promoted. This has an inherent risk of shrinking millet diversity and weakening farm resilience, contributing to the vulnerability of millet farmers, especially in the context of climate change.

Some serious concerns
There is a worry in the Kondh community that their way of life is now being severely threatened. Millet cultivation is a part of the identity of the Kondh society; around its cultivation are organized sowing, harvesting and seed sharing festivals which are occasions for the people to meet, sing, dance and celebrate their ecology and their oneness. This oneness has also been their strength in resisting existential threats to their way of life in the form of forest felling, forced displacement, migration of the youth and many other ways. If their agriculture withers away, it may result in distancing them from each other and their customary forms of support. Their children may not be able to learn their knowledge and skills on food production, collection and sharing with each other.

Making millets a focus by consumerist cultures with little or no respect for cultural integrity and its life sustaining features is not likely to contribute towards its revival. There are several pertinent questions – does this change from the consumption of polished rice, wheat and maize to millets hold the potential to address the consequences that have entailed the transition from agri-culture to agri-business? Does this address the farmers’ loss of control over knowledge, seeds and land?

P. Sainath in one of his recent write-ups asks if the people in villages are less thirsty. (India Water Portal, 2017). He tells us that in drought-struck farmer-suicide ridden Maharashtra, is a building being constructed with a swimming pool on each floor, on the lands abandoned by farmers because of water scarcity. In any metropolitan area of India, the elite continue to lead water intensive lifestyles, generating huge amounts of waste and using industrial products that release effluents into the environment. For anyone to assume that the mere consumption of millets will ensure their well-being is highly flawed. Our high ecological footprint reflects highly unequal resource distribution. But more importantly, it shows how our lives are threatening our farmers’ survival. The need of the hour is to interrogate our choices and to revive the culture of an agriculture that is rooted in the societal well-being.

Way forward
Behind this culture of eating together and celebrating seed distribution together is a deep sense of equity. This ensures that no one goes hungry in the community- a rather radical idea in this age of widening inequality. The underlying belief is that the well-being of one is deeply linked with others, hence the concern for the birds, the insects, the ecology and every person in their society. A millet revival disconnected with the concern of societal well-being will not go too far. If this continues, we will be dismally failing to be honest to our farmers and our ecology- the spirit of whom we have already managed to damage.

When we asked the older women of Khalpadar if they would ever let anyone cultivate a whopping 20 acres of land, they laughed, dismissing our concerns, saying they had no reason to object to it if the person had the energy. And in any case, they said, “we know that in the end we all will eat the foods together.”

We express our deep gratitude to indigenous communities like the Kondhs who have refused to bow before the God of pseudo modernity. They have always celebrated the multifaceted bounty of the earth which respects the tiny ants
that crisscross their fields, as much as they do to humans, who enjoy the bounty.

Debjeet Sarangi and Kavya Chowdhry
Living Farms
Plot No.1181 / 2146, Ratnakarbag-2,
Tankapani Road
Bhubaneswar – 751018
Odisha – India
E-mail: livingfarms@gmail.com