India's poorest revive an ancient grain
India’s marginalised Dalit community in drought-prone Tamil Nadu is growing millet again to help bolster its food security, adapt to a changing climate, and improve nutrition. It's all thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Collective, a not-for-profit that works with more than 10,000 small farmers to promote food security.
Sheelu Francis, one of the collective's founders, says millet copes better with drought than wheat and can also better deal with higher temperatures. A kilo of millet requires just 250 litres of water, compared to more than 10 times that for rice. Millet also has a shorter growth cycle than wheat or rice, and can be stored for up to three decades.
It was enough to convince one farmer, Pavitra from the village of Thottampatti. She became convinced of millet's high nutritional value after attending several of the collective’s meetings and began growing it in 2015 and now has four varieties on her 1.8ha plot of dry land, along with corn, cotton, groundnut, as well as several vegetables and legumes. All up, it's more than enough to feed her extended family of seven year-round.
Native to Africa and Asia, millet has in the past fed India's poor and disadvantaged, particularly the Dalit people, who subsist on the lowest rung of the country’s caste system.
That changed in the 1960s, when the so-called Green Revolution replaced traditional farming practices and indigenous seeds with pesticide- and fertiliser-intensive agricultural techniques and hybrid wheat and rice seeds. But now, a changing climate is prompting a rethink in favour of millet.
Cultivating millet has helped the collective's small, landless farmers in other ways too. Aside from financial independence, about a thousand women have become landowners, and nearly 700 are now farming on leased land, between six and ten members to each collective farm.
Speaking with the Christian Science Monitor, Francis says women have taken over governance in at least 75 villages. “We are organising ourselves, educating ourselves, and fighting for our rightful place in society,” she says.
In 2013, millet was included in the National Food Security Act, alongside rice and wheat; the act aims to provide highly subsidised food grains to two-thirds of India’s households. Pan-India organisations such as the Millet Network of India and the All India Millet Sisters — with grassroots representatives from 15 states — are working to have millet included in every public food program, particularly those for children. In some Indian states, such as Karnataka and Odisha, state governments actively promote millet production and consumption. In Telangana and Nagaland, the revival is led by grassroots organisations.
“Millet was a forgotten crop for a while,” says C. Shambu Prasad, professor of strategic management at the Institute of Rural Management Anand. “Hence, there’s a huge lag of public investment in developing the millet ecosystem, for example in processing technology.”
This lack of suitable processing machinery led Dinesh Kumar, one of the co-founders of earth360 — a millet-based enterprise in Andhra Pradesh — to design robust processing machines, with the help of more than 3,000 farmers. His company, Millet, Machines & Tools has developed a mobile millet grader to remove impurities, a huller, and a destoner. “We are focusing on the entire millet value chain — from farmers to processing technology to consumers — to ensure long-term sustainability,” he says.
Prasad also highlights another challenge: creating a demand for millet, especially among urban consumers. “In larger Indian cities, quinoa sourced from overseas is sold as health food,” he says. “We need to get urban consumers to make the shift to millet.”
To encourage that shift, Arun Kaulige, co-founder of Kaulige Foods and earth360, has held more than 300 workshops to familiarise city-dwellers with millet. His Facebook group, Cooking with Millets, shares recipes and fields questions.
ABOVE Farmers from the Women's Collective prepare their collectively leased land for farming
PHOTO Women's Collective