By Manipadma Jena*, Niyamgiri Hills, Odisha
During a participatory appraisal helping Dongria Kondhs to cope with climate change, the ancient tribal community mulled which of their grains could grow under high temperature and which could grow under low and erratic rainfall. It emerged that specific varieties of indigenous millets can grow under conditions of more heat and with as few as two monsoon showers.
Indigenous farmers in India are again recognising and asserting the value of millets, a cereal crop that was once central to their culture and is seen today as a perfect adaptation to ensure nutritional security in these times of climate distress.
As Dasara Kadraka lets the tiny russet-coloured seeds flow from her cupped palms into an earthen storage pot, she recalls, "At one time, I've heard as a girl, we harvested 45 traditional varieties of millet. Even 10 years ago, we grew 11 varieties that went down to just two."
"We have intensified our search for lost indigenous varieties," the 70-year-old senior from the primitive Dongria Kondh tribal community that is working together since 2014 to revive their heritage millets in Kadaraguma village high on the Niyamgiri hill range in eastern India's Odisha state told VillageSquare.in. After ousting the British mining group Vedanta in 2013, the community has also felt that they must reoccupy their hills by bringing more land under traditional crops.
"At one time, I've heard as a girl, we harvested 45 traditional varieties of millet. Even 10 years ago, we grew 11 varieties that went down to just two."
Millets stage a comeback
More significant to its sustainable revival, millet is rapidly becoming a health food of choice for India's urban middle class. The government is also promoting millets under its National Food Security Act as key to combating undernutrition, particularly in rural areas. Under the right-to-food guarantee, currently, 4.5 million tonnes of food grains at highly subsidised rates are distributed to nearly two-thirds of the Indian population.
Millets are a rich source of protein, vitamin B, and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. They contain significant amounts of phenol, which act as anti-oxidants and as preventive for degenerative illnesses such as heart diseases and cancer. It is gluten-free, and with low glycemic index, it is suitable for diabetics.
Referring to the one rupee rice the community gets under a government-subsidized scheme, Krusna Kadraka, headman of Kadaraguma village, told VillageSquare.in, "Rice fills the stomach but does not last, and we are hungry and tired sooner. We must eat mandia (millets), which provides the energy to walk our steep hills every day."
"Rice fills the stomach but does not last, and we are hungry and tired sooner. We must eat mandia (millets), which provides the energy to walk our steep hills every day."
Strength from millets
The very same sentiment comes from a retired schoolteacher buying 2 kg of millet powder at a Bhubaneswar city government outlet in Odisha. "Millet gives strength and since I am diabetic, a millet gruel mixed with yogurt is the best breakfast the doctor tells me," said Ravindra Mishra.
A 100 gm pearl millet breakfast has 100% of daily iron requirement for adults while 100 gm of finger millet has half the requirement of iron and one-third of calcium, important for children and lactating mothers, said Namita Biswal, a city-based nutritionist.
"Since all the seasonal fruits have sucrose unsuitable for my weight-loss regimen, I have replaced semolina with mineral-packed millet grains while making savory breakfast dishes with plenty of vegetables," 43-year-old Pinky Agarwal told VillageSquare.in. "If someone had told me to eat millet five year back, I might even have been offended," the cost accountant added, referring to the social stigma attached to millet.
At the government tribal welfare department's sales outlet, Kartik Kumar Swain said millet sales have doubled over the one year he has been manning the shop. In a month they procure 1,000 kg of the grain, all of which vanishes from the shelves within 20 days. At an earlier rural posting back in 1992, he remembers the government procured millet for a measly one rupee a kilogram, which has now increased 30 fold.
"I have replaced semolina with mineral-packed millet grains while making savory breakfast dishes with plenty of vegetables."
Orphan crop's political journey
Out of the 7,000 plant species that have been used for human food consumption since the beginning of agriculture, just three crops — rice, maize and wheat — provide 60% of the world's plant-based calories and proteins today, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In India, 60 years ago, millet was grown in 40% of all cereal cultivated area. This has dropped in the last 50 years and now millet occupies only 11% of India's cropped area. The major wave of undervaluation came from the 1960s onward with the Green Revolution.
Within government policy there has emerged a food-grain caste system. White rice, bringing profit to fertilizer industrialists, large farmers, and export revenue to government, is considered the food for superior classes. India remains the second-largest exporter of rice after China.
Millet came to be known as a coarse grain eaten by the poor and used as fodder. It has largely remained excluded from government's food grains research, policy, minimum support price buyback, irrigation facilities and marketing campaigns. Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan has called millet one of the orphan crops.
The loss of heirloom millet varieties among Dongria Kondhs who inhabited regions that were once inaccessible, was rapid. NGOs working among the Dongria Kondhs say the skewed government policy to provide subsidized rice to a millet-eating people is mainly responsible for the decline. Coupled with this is the government's promotion of cash crops such as pineapple, turmeric and ginger, which has cut into over 50% of millet land over the past 16 years.
White rice, bringing profit to fertilizer industrialists, large farmers, and export revenue to government, is considered the food for superior classes.
Cashing in on this increasing popularity and awareness of the goodness of millets among city people are tribal women self-help groups in the Eastern Ghats. In 15 villages of Odisha's Koraput district, tribal women are honing up their cooking skills learning to make attractive millet preparations that will appeal to urban consumers. Until recently, they mostly made a bland porridge-like millet gruel. Now, with help from Development of Humane Action (DHAN) Foundation, a national NGO, village schoolchildren are getting processed dishes they had never tasted before. "For now they plan to sell at city exhibitions, and supply to sweetmeat shops too," Bijaya Kumar Nayak of DHAN told VillageSquare.in. DHAN is working to get popular regional cinema actors to endorse their recipes.
Having found lost millet varieties in remote hamlets still untouched by government's push for cash crops and paddy, the Dongria Kondhs are in mission mode, urgently inquiring among clan families and at market meetings if anyone is still preserving a millet variety that others have abandoned.
They have rescued the Kodo millet, practically lost for 40 years, which is high in fibre and energy content, and is ideal for diabetics. Also being revived are two varieties of sorghum in Jangojodi village and another foxtail millet variety in Sagadi village. Dasara Kadraka says she is hopeful about adding many more crops to this lost and found list.
Manipadma Jena is a journalist based out of New Delhi and Bhubaneswar.
This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.