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Policy changes on millets: A relook

Millets are a rich source of nutrition and ideally suited for addressing the issues of hunger and malnutrition. However, government policies directed at providing nutrition in the region may indirectly promote monocultures, resulting in the decline of biodiversity, leading to a different kind of malnutrition. It is therefore important to design strategies that encourage the cultivation of millets using traditional methods that are best suited to the local agroecology.

The potential of millets as a source of nutrition and a tool for hunger eradication is well established.  Millets constitute one of the oldest forms of source of food, particularly in the tribal regions of India and the less developed regions of the world. Millets often termed as the poor man’s food, however, is now being subjected to systematic neglect leading to decreased production.

Not too long ago, even until about 20-25 years millets were widely cultivated in many parts of India including the eastern ghats and villages of Koraput district, dominated by the tribal communities. These include Jowar (Sorghum vulgare), Pearl millet (Pennisetum typhoides),  Proso millet (Panicum miliare), Barnyard millet (Eichinochloa sp.), Foxtail millet (Setaria italica), Kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum), and Ragi (Eluisine coracana).  Among these, ragi, a  millet, is more predominant in terms of acreage. Millets are grown on poor soils with little water holding capacity and are dependent on the monsoons for production. Tribals practice shifting cultivation on medium and uplands along the hill slopes, where the crop is cultivated during June to September.  Millets have been the main source of nutrition to these tribal communities. A report by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad states that compared to rice, these crops have better mineral, protein and fat content as compared to rice. Additionally, iron content in millets is crucial for fighting malnutrition and anemia, largely prevalent in the region.

The issue of climate change and the predicted effects on the agro-forestry systems across the globe has now brought millets into focus. In this background, a survey was done to understand how the scenario has changed with regards to agriculture in the southern region of Odisha, that has traditionally nurtured minor millets.

Table 1: Effect of transition of land from millets to eucalyptus

Sl.  No Present Future
Environmental Survives drought partially or fully and production can be obtained May succumb to drought induced due to climate change
Financial Not very lucrative for the farmer at present Leads to increased income from  farm
Nutrition Helps manage nutrition levels of farming community Production mostly for market and may not contribute significantly to nutrition of locals
Social Culturally compatible with food habits and traditions Will lead to change in food habits and adaptation to new food
Economic Not a ready market Market exists for the products

Declining area under millets – some factors

With the introduction of commercial agriculture and plantation crops like eucalyptus, oil palm and cotton among others, land originally allotted to small millets is being increasingly diverted towards non-food crops. This is jeopardizing a reliable source of food and nutrition for the low income communities in the tribal region. Ironically in an era where crop diversification and promoting the traditional varieties has been proven to be  the most effective tool against fighting poverty and malnutrition, in these regions, the system of modernization and mono-cropping is being promoted. This inadvertently has pushed the farmers towards plantation crops and changing food habits. How this will impact the health status in the region in the long run remains to be seen.

Many varieties of millets previously grown in the region are not cultivated
Many varieties of millets previously grown in the region are not cultivated

Balram Bidya of Siriguda Village in Kashipur block, had the responsibility of getting his four daughters married for which he needed money. The income from ragi cultivation was too meagre. Hence, he diverted 20 acres of land out of the 30 acres he owned from millets (ragi) to eucalyptus. This would fetch him about Rs.70000 per acre in three years which would help him immensely. Cultivation of ragi on the other hand fetched him a low returns at about 21 rupees a kilo and he hardly had a crop output of 100 kilos. Thus, he feels the transition is both logical and lucrative.  In previous years he cultivated many varieties of ragi but keeping in tune with the times he has now restricted his cultivation to Madai muskili only. This is enough for his domestic consumption with a little surplus for market at times.

By labeling these lands as unsuitable for crop production and therefore diverting such lands for cultivation of trees like eucalyptus, the possibility of eradicating malnutrition in these regions is further decreased. Many varieties of millets previously grown in the region are now not cultivated. Table 1 indicates how the transition from millets to plantation may possibly affect the community in future due to climate change.

While the importance of millets and Ragi in providing health benefits is well established –  like decreasing cholesterol, helping with  lactation, providing minerals like calcium, fibres etc., availability of subsidized rice through the public distribution system has  led to the lowered consumption of millets. Availability of subsidized rice has not only led to decreased consumption of millets but has also affected the nutrition levels. This has further resulted in   declining areas under cultivation, decreased interest in cultivation of the crop and loss of traditional varieties.

Also due to life style changes, the consumption of millets by upper and middle class sections of the society has reduced, leading to dip in demand for millets. This has further discouraged the small and marginal farmers to take up cultivation of millets. Today many landraces and varieties of the millets that can add  to the diversity of these crops for future sustainable agriculture are on the verge of extinction. Places that grew a dozen varieties of these crops now cultivate one or two varieties. Some of the varieties of Ragi that are cultivated and no more cultivated have been listed in Table 2 to show the loss of these crops in traditional regions.

Table 2: Varieties of ragi that have been going extinct in the region of Koraput

Variety  Status    Reason
China kani Mandia Not cultivated Diversion of land for orchard
Janaa mandia Not cultivated diversion of land for Eucalyptus and orchard
Telenga mandia Not cultivated black in color so minimum market price
Muguda maandia Not cultivated diversion of land for Eucalyptus and orchard
Katarasingh Cultivated Has good agronomic and food qualities
Madai muskili Cultivated Has good agronomic and food qualities

Social responsibilities are also a cause for the conversion of agricultural/pasture land into eucalyptus stands, as per Balram Bidya of Siriguda Village in Kashipur block,. He explains how the pressure of getting his four daughters married has made him divert two thirds of his land holdings from millets (ragi) to eucalyptus.(See Box 1). The case highlights how individual’s approaches indeed create a decrease in production that would deprive other poor people who visit local weekly markets and depend on farmers like Balram for ragi as a source of nutrition.

Millets are the main source of nutrition to the tribal communities
Millets are the main source of nutrition to the tribal communities

According to Ms. Suman Jhodia, such diversion is now rampant in this ecosensitive zone. She mentions how more than 50 cultivators have now started eucalyptus in a majority of their land holdings. Since the government provides rice at one rupee a kilo and growing ragi is not anymore essential to fight hunger, people are further disinterested in growing this crop. This argument was well supported by other women like Kamalini Jhodia, Kunjapati Jhodia and Sobni Jhodia, indicating how the traditional millet growing areas are gradually transforming into the feeders for commercial firms.

Millet promotion – what ails on the ground?

The propaganda about millets is on the rise with events being organized in many places and venues being echoed with their significance. However, at the ground level, little is being done to protect these precious resources by Government, private sector and civil society. The Government has pledged support for cultivation of millets last year along with providing inputs in terms of irrigation facilities and seed supply. Normally, millets require less chemical inputs and are also resistant to pests and diseases. Thus avoiding pesticides or minimizing their use in the scenario of increased acreage under millets would be one of the best strategies to adopt rather than treating it as a fully commercial product, thereby making its cultivation expensive with high external inputs. However, the low requirement of agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides for these crops also means that the companies traditionally associated with selling these commodities show little interest in cultivation of millets. On the other hand, at times, they tend to discourage farmers from taking up these crops. Thus, the non-involvement of commercial enterprises also has weakened the advocacy of cultivation of these crops in the public fora.

Traditionally, millets like ragi have been cultivated and the lines maintained by farmers using organic approach. Today, there is a drive to make this crop popular due to its relevance as a health promoting food in the urban areas. This in turn is gradually elevating its status as a staple food in the society compared to earlier times when its consumption was linked to poverty and backwardness.  By taking a complete commercial approach for the cultivation of millets, the crop may slowly become a monoculture of a few varieties like the other cereal crops like wheat, rice and maize. This can lead to loss of crop diversity and in situ evolution with climate change. It would also put the crop at risk of being lost during any natural calamity, disease or pest incidence. Thus, strategies to maintain land races are required in parallel.

Need for shifting emphasis

Government policies directed at providing nutrition in the region may indirectly be promoting the decline of minor millets and leading to a different kind of malnutrition while alleviating hunger in the region. It is therefore important to design strategies to encourage the cultivation, maintainenance and propagation of local varieties of millets in the region with good marketing strategies, so that their cultivation is comparable to the cash crops. Inclusion of tree crops in the system has benefitted the farmers and is well appreciated for helping them come out of the poverty trap. However, emphasis should now be laid on educating them about the importance of continuing cultivation of minor millets in the ensuing climate change situation. Tribal farmers, traditionally have been practicing mixed farming and crop rotation, which are best suited to the local agroecology. These cropping patterns have stood the test of time and climate variabilities.  Such traditional cropping systems need to be supported and promoted. Sustenance of such agricultural systems will be the key to address the climate change issues locally.

While tree crops ensure a good financial support system for the farmers, they may be more vulnerable to climatic extremities and pest attacks. Thus, proper management practices and planning needs to be undertaken, so that both trees as well as millet crops are grown.  Otherwise, short term financial gains may be largely offset by the effects of climate change in future. Also, the failure of tree crops and loss of varieties of millets may only aggravate the problems of the farmers while dealing with negative impacts of climate change.

Women play a major role in both the fight against climate change and in eradicating chronic hunger and malnutrition. The bondage between millets and women in these tribal tracts is indispensible in this regard and cannot be broken. The fine line between substituting wealth for health needs to be precisely defined so that this region that suffers from endemic malnutrition does not further slip into health related problems.

Way forward

Odisha has about 30 districts with mountainous and hilly terrain that is suitable for the cultivation of Ragi and other millets. These regions are also home to tribes, in need of nutrition. Thus, propagating and encouraging these crops would benefit the local communities immensely.

Current policies and implementation are at best a lip service to the declining cultivation of millets. Without any proactive steps undertaken for increasing the area under these crops or any efforts to resuscitate the varieties going extinct, we would lose precious resources for fighting against climate change induced food shortage. Based on the current scenario, we propose a few policy changes that may help to continue the tradition of millet growing in this region (See Table 3).

Table 3 : Policy changes and possible outcomes

Sl. No Government action Possible effect on environment/agriculture Possible effect on

health status

Possible effect on financial status
1. Compulsory maintenance of landraces by Government and seed producing companies. Helps maintain diversity Creates possibility for selection for better nutrition and taste qualities. Lowers burden on farmers for landrace maintenance.
2. Limiting acreage under orchard crops/commercial crops as a percentage of land holding for farmers with larger holdings. Promotes a healthy balance in the environment and ensures diversity Ensures nutrition. Helps farmers with more income.
3. Involving private sector companies in promoting millets. Eg., Horlicks to produce millet based food products. May promote monoculture.

Preservation of landraces by the company

Improved health of women/children.

With rural areas changing into urban food habits, this ensures millet consumption.

Better market for product.
4. Include millets in MDM scheme and procure from local sources. Maintains local production Helps to provide better nutrition to kids and helps retain  their habit of consumption of millets. Has a readymade market for the produce. Farmer need not have to struggle for selling his produce.

These policy options may help to maintain enough landraces for in situ evolution in view of imminent climate change. This may also mitigate the prevalent malnutrition to some extent by making nutritious sources like millets available to the poor in this region.  It is time to start understanding that eradication of hunger may not be the final goal post in ensuring healthy communities. In this region, malnutrition needs to be given equal emphasis. In this view it is time the government initiate policy changes with regards to cultivation of millets.

Ranjit K Sahu is a freelance writer currently located
in Virginia, USA
E-mail: sahurk9@gmail.com

Ravi Shankar Behera
Independent Freelance Development Consultant
based in New Delhi
E-mail: rsbehera@rediffmail.com

Srinibash Das
District Coordinator,
Agragamee,
Rayagada – 765001
Odisha
E-mail: dassrinivash@gmail.com