Millets in South MP: A Tale of Government and CSO Apathy

Abhishek Tiwary . December 4, 2019

Having dumped the cultivation of conventional millet, with the onset of the Green Revolution, the people of Madhya Pradesh are now realizing how suitable it was for their terrain and the climate as well as the nutritional benefits it offered…the effort now is to reinvest energy in making millet cultivation easier and less of a drudgery that it was

“Bhaiya! Isme saanwa, kutki nahi dikh raha hai?” enquired the women of an SHG when presented with the pictorial flex for crop planning by a development-wallah. What was supposed to be an inclusive exercise of crop planning in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh turned out to be flawed, as was pointed out by the women. The flaw was, however, not in the flex but in the mindset. And this mindset prevails across the diversity-rich, great nation of India. Post-Independence, India faced the challenge of hunger and deprivation. The Green Revolution brought with it several technological innovations to enhance farm production and meet the challenge of hunger.

Post-Independence, India faced the challenge of hunger and deprivation. The Green Revolution brought with it several technological innovations to enhance farm production and meet the challenge of hunger.

T his change was driven by government agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs) in a top-down approach. As a result, we attained food security for the masses but we lost the natural nutritional cover provided by our conventional agriculture system, thereby creating new challenges for farmers for whom agriculture was their sole livelihood. The current state poses questions on the development pathways adopted so far and the future of food and agriculture in India and the world.

This change was driven by government agencies and civil society organizations (CSOs) in a top-down approach. As a result, we attained food security for the masses but we lost the natural nutritional cover provided by our conventional agriculture system, thereby creating new challenges for farmers for whom agriculture was their sole livelihood. The current state poses questions on the development pathways adopted so far and the future of food and agriculture in India and the world.

This situation can be seen in South Madhya Pradesh (MP), comprising Balaghat, Mandla, Dindori, Anuppur, Chhindwara, Seoni and Betul districts, where I work. South MP is home to tribes such as Gond, Baiga, and Korku, mainly engaged in agriculture and forest-based livelihoods. The region does not fare well on any development indicator and MP stands among the bottom 10 of the Indian states. Many government agencies and CSOs have been trying hard to change the picture here. Challenges range from economic deprivation to gender discrimination, nutritional deficiency, poor education and lack of infrastructure. A major focus has been on livelihoods and, specifically, agriculture. Both government and non-government organisations (NGOs) have made several interventions in this region to enhance people’s income and secure their livelihoods.

T he interventions have been focussed mainly on irrigated agricultural crops. Paddy, wheat, maize, and vegetables have been emphasised by all the agencies as a means to enhanced income. This trend of the intervention was in consonance with government policies and systems. The advent of change agents accelerated this agriculture model, pushed by the government and the market, without paying heed to pre-existing crops and agricultural practices.

Paddy, wheat, maize, and vegetables have been emphasised by all the agencies as a means to enhanced income. This trend of the intervention was in consonance with government policies and systems. The advent of change agents accelerated this agriculture model, pushed by the government and the market, without paying heed to pre-existing crops and agricultural practices.
In the process, millets and pulses lost out to foreign seeds and new crops. These regions were labelled unfit to join in the journey of Green Revolution due to lack of any irrigation infrastructure, which ultimately contributed significantly to regional disparities. Subsequently, at the micro-level, any family without wells or borewells would be termed ‘poor’ and incapable of finding its way out of poverty. This discourse has not changed much; infact, it has been driving the approach to strengthening rural livelihoods throughout India. In this journey, millets of all sorts were gradually replaced by cereals such as wheat, paddy and maize. None of the CSOs/NGOs working in this region tried to include millets in a community’s crop planning.

In this journey, millets of all sorts were gradually replaced by cereals such as wheat, paddy and maize. None of the CSOs/NGOs working in this region tried to include millets in a community’s crop planning.

In Balaghat, hybrid paddy, and a long-duration variety of paddy have been extensively adopted; Mandla has replaced millets with maize, paddy and wheat; and Betul has adopted maize, sugarcane, soyabean and mulberry. All these crops are water-intensive. South MP, being an undulating terrain, is mostly semi-arid and naturally suitable for millets and pulses cultivation.

U ntil 30 years ago, millets and pulses were the staple diet of the community and also the major crop. This has changed now. And the change has been so severe that millets have been completely wiped off from the local agriculture. Whereas the hope was that this change would bring prosperity and drive away hunger, it has created new challenges. The challenges are resource crunch, reduced farmer sovereignty and increased susceptibility to droughts. The absence of millet cultivation has also impacted people’s nutritional intake, affecting women and children the most. Their regular source of iron and calcium used to be millets, which are now no longer part of the food habits of the new generation.

The common perception is that coarse grains do not taste as good as rice and wheat. Also, what is seldom mentioned is that the processing of millets is an uphill task and is drudgery for women. This has been a major reason for communities to give up on millet cultivation.

The common perception is that coarse grains do not taste as good as rice and wheat. Also, what is seldom mentioned is that the processing of millets is an uphill task and is drudgery for women. This has been a major reason for communities to give up on millet cultivation.

Whereas change agents have helped bring new seeds and technology to rural tribals, they have done nothing to save what was already there. This shows the disregard for local culture and lifestyle, even if unintended, contained in the idea of ‘mainstreaming’.

Today, hardly 5–10 per cent of farmers grow millet in any village in south MP. People talk of millet as if it is a thing of the past. Such is the despair surrounding millets. The CSOs and governments did nothing to integrate millets in livelihood-promotion strategies or devise ways to mitigate the drudgery involved in processing millets. Paddy and wheat threshers have reached every corner of this region through government and market instruments whereas millet de-huskers are unheard of. When asked, most of the CSOs shift the blame to the upper orbit of policy-makers and donors, expressing their own challenges of survival and ‘fitting right’ in the scene. Government agencies such as Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK) and agriculture departments are mostly ignorant about millet, resulting in negligible investment in research and development of new varieties of millet seeds. Off-the-record conversations have revealed that no agricultural scientist wishes to be associated with millets lest their progressive image suffers. This class bias of millet being a poor man’s food is highlighted by the story of quinoa in India.

The love for imports and Western habits has created an irony of sorts with the advent of quinoa in Indian markets. Quinoa is a coarse grain from the Andes Mountains in South America. It is a hardy crop with high nutrition content. One could call it the American cousin of Indian millets.

The love for imports and Western habits has created an irony of sorts with the advent of quinoa in Indian markets. Quinoa is a coarse grain from the Andes Mountains in South America. It is a hardy crop with high nutrition content. One could call it the American cousin of Indian millets.

Quinoa has taken the world by storm and is rapidly occupying Indian markets owing to aggressive marketing by the West. It fetches a high price and has acquired an elite status in dietary charts. The craze has been so much that the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has initiated research on quinoa even as Indian millets meekly wait for similar attention.

The threat of climate change, declining nutritional levels, and diminishing trader-friendly market systems have collectively taken a toll on rural communities. The story has not ended though. There have been some green shoots in millet-revival recently. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have adopted policies to promote millet. Entrepreneurs are coming forward to revive millet cultivation and markets. Millet de-husking and de-stoning machines have been developed. In MP, the KVK in Dindori has been trying hard to salvage the lost glory of millet by developing new varieties of kutki. The sad part is that it has still not found a place in popular agricultural programmes, CSO intervention plans or the livelihood discourse.

What can be done?

T here is a need to understand the root causes of the present agrarian distress. While income has increased, so has the competition for resources. Add to this the crisis of multiple loans to the individual farmer from various micro-finance institutions (MFIs). The system is looking far too much outward for support and survival than inward.

The need of the hour is for higher productivity, and this can be done by promoting research on millet and indigenous pulses. State governments need to make a more programmatic investment in post-harvest millet processing. The available technologies have to be taken to the doorsteps of farmers, and civil society has an important role in this. Just like they championed new varieties during the Green Revolution, they should be the flag bearers for millet now. Agriculture departments and KVKs should proactively plan for millet demonstrations and seed availability. For example, Betul is popular for its quality barnyard millet (saanwa) but the agriculture departments have been running dry on millet seed stocks for many years, which is ironic. This also requires some political will and, therefore, the need to collectivize women, as in the case of PRADAN-promoted Federations to influence local political leadership like the zilla panchayat, MLAs and MP.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare declared 2018 as the National Year of the Millet, hailing its nutritional benefits. Such a gesture does lend some moral support to the cause; however, not much has changed on the ground as yet. There is a need for more resource allocation at the grass-roots level, provisioning for all the millet growing regions. A stronger political will and concerted and combined efforts of CSOs and markets alone can save the day for the millet. Otherwise, we will all be thinking nostalgically about millets and paying heavily for a plate of quinoa.

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