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Despite the Green Revolution, which favoured rice and wheat, millets in India have survived, thanks to cultural traditions, but came to be known as “coarse grains.”
Apart from ragi and jowar, other types of millets have tough seed coats and need more processing.
The promotion of certain millets like ragi in Odisha, jowar in Karnataka and kodo and kutki in Madhya Pradesh need not be at the cost of small millets, said the Indian Institute of Millets director Vilas Tonapi.
The year 2023 will be observed as the International Year of Millets, following India’s proposal to the Food and Agriculture Organization, which was approved in at the 160th session of the FAO Council in December 2018. Through decades, the country has enjoyed a rich association with millets, though the Green Revolution favoured rice and wheat. Millets survived, thanks to cultural traditions, but came to be known as “coarse grains.”
Today, millets are returning to farms and fields as a result of national and state-level initiatives. Termed as nutri-cereals, millets are finding favour among farmers for being climate-smart crops that are drought resistant, growing in areas with low rainfall and infertile soil.
According to Shailaja Fennell, a lecturer at Jesus College in the University of Cambridge, millets are found in diverse parts of the world and form the earliest family of cereals cultivated by humans. “What is exciting about them is their genetic diversity. They have a huge potential for meeting our food needs in the future,” she said. But the erasure of traditional methods of farming by modern systems of biological classification has resulted in the marginalisation of tribals, she explained to Mongabay-India.
Vilas Tonapi, director of the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) agrees. “In the drylands, monocultures have driven farmers to bankruptcy. There is a need to go back to our culture of multi, mixed and intercropping as it provides insurance against monsoonal failure and also enables sustainable livelihoods,” he said.
Millets are suitable for harsh, hot and dry environments. They can grow in arid regions, requiring only 350-400 mm of annual rainfall. Some varieties of pearl millet survive at temperatures up to 46 degrees Celsius. Besides, they require minimal inputs, Tonapi added.
“In order to ensure that soil health is retained, we should focus on growing less extractive crops like millets. They are good for holding water and adding a lot of organic matter for soil health revival,” explained Raman Ahuja, a food and agriculture value chain specialist.
Millet production in India
In the past six decades, India has witnessed a decrease in the area under millets. However, the productivity (yield in kg/ha) of these crops has gone up due to the adoption of high-yielding varieties and improved production technologies.
Among the states, during 2017-18, the maximum area under millets was in Rajasthan, followed by Maharashtra and Karnataka.
The main reasons behind the decline are low remuneration, lack of input subsidies and price incentives, subsidised supply of fine cereals through the public distribution system (PDS) and change in consumer preferences, added Tonapi. These factors led to a shift from the production of millets (jowar in particular) to soybean, maize, cotton, sugarcane and sunflower.