Indian Women Turn to Ancient Grains to Feed Their Families and Their Futures

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Read full article By Anne Pinto-Rodrigues @ Yes Magazine Photo Credit: SABALA

Until 15 years ago, residents of the semi-arid Vizianagaram district in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh did not cultivate any millets. For that matter, they did not cultivate any food crops.

“Many people here were disconnected from their fields. They would work in nearby towns as daily-wage labor and depended on the public distribution system for subsidized but nutrient-sparse white rice,” says K. Saraswathi, executive secretary of SABALA, a nonprofit that aims to strengthen community food security via millet farming, describing the scene she encountered when her organization first began working in the district. “A few farmers who were growing rice had lost their entire crop due to the absence of rain. People sorely felt the lack of food and livelihood security.”

Similar narratives are common even today in other parts of the country, where farmers have either stopped farming completely or focus on cash crops such as cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco, leaving them with little nutrition or financial security. Rice and wheat cultivation were heavily promoted during the country’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, when farmers were given incentives for using hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As a result, the production and consumption of millets in India fell dramatically. But with nearly 60% of the country’s agricultural area under rain-fed (non-irrigated) farming, rice and wheat farmers are overly reliant on weather conditions that are becoming less conducive to farming with climate change.

Vizianagaram district is one of several places in India experiencing the revival of millet cultivation. When SABALA first approached villagers in the district about millet farming back in 2006, the women came forward because they and their children were suffering from anemia, stunted growth, and other disorders caused by the lack of proper nutrition. Today, SABALA works with nearly 2,000 female farmers in the district who are cultivating millets, mainly for their own consumption.

Janaki Bobbili, a 29-year-old married mother of two, is one of them. She belongs to the marginalized “backward class” community in the Veerabhadrapuram village of the Vizianagaram district. In the past, she felt disadvantaged not only because of her gender but also because she belonged to the lowest tiers of caste and class.

Slowly, though, that feeling began to change after Bobbili attended a meeting organized by SABALA about five years ago, where she was introduced to the nutritive value of millets. Soon after, Bobbili began cultivating millets for her family’s sustenance on a 1-acre plot belonging to her father-in-law. Thanks to millet farming, she has become a leader in a local millet cooperative and says, “I finally have recognition in society.”

The Bounty of Millets

Millets are a family of hardy, nutrient-rich grains in the grass family that have been grown and consumed in the Indian subcontinent since ancient times. Common varieties include pearl, foxtail, finger, barnyard, kodo, and little millet. In the face of climate change, millets are now being increasingly valued for their low water requirements during cultivation and tolerance to temperature increases, as well as for the unprocessed grain’s ability to store well for 20 to 30 years. In India, where more than 70% of rural working women are farmers and will be among the first to suffer the impacts of climatic changes here, millet farming helps them secure nutrition, health, and a more resilient future for themselves and their families.

Millets today, as in the distant past, are cultivated using sustainable agriculture practices such as multi-cropping, with cow or buffalo dung as fertilizer and natural pesticides called “insect-chasers” made from neem and other local medicinal plants. These traditional farming techniques enable a farmer to cultivate 15 to 20 crops in a 1-acre plot. With SABALA’S support, women in Vizianagaram district began growing different kinds of millets, intercropped with vegetables, legumes, pulses, and oil seeds.

“The investment needed to start growing millets is low, but they provide every possible kind of security. Besides food, nutrition, and health security, they also ensure financial, fodder, seed, soil, environment, and cultural security,” Saraswathi says. “Such is the beauty of millets.”

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Posted on

December 2, 2020

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