Read full article by Prasun Chaudhuri@ The Telegraph Online Photo Credit: File Picture
The story of a reversal that may yet rescue Indians from being hungry and undernourished.
I first tasted kodo, a coarse foodgrain, when I was barely seven. It was at the home of our Adivasi domestic help in Piska, a roadside railway station near Lohardaga in what was then southern Bihar. The porridge she cooked with kodo, jaggery and a bit of salt tasted much better than the gruel I was force-fed for breakfast. When I told her this, she said, “We eat kodo because we can’t afford rice or wheat. It’s a seed of grass grown in the wild.”
Years later, while travelling through Odisha’s Balangir forests, I spotted similar stalks of grain strewn out to dry on the metalled road. My fellow traveller, a botanist, told me that those stalks were panicles of cow grass or ditch millet, one of the most ancient foodgrains grown in the tropics and sub-tropics — India, west Africa and east Asia.
That was in 1993. The area was notorious for famines and starvation deaths. I remember being told ditch millet is one of the coarsest foodgrains and grows almost anywhere.
I found mention of ghaser beej or seeds of grass in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s classic, Aranyak, based on his 1928-sojourn in a zamindari estate near Bhagalpur in Bihar. In it, the master storyteller describes his association with the poor villagers of Labtulia, Phulkia, Baihar and so on. He learnt that rice was sheer luxury and they mostly survived on grains of cheena ghaas.
Such seeds of grass apparently constituted the food of rural people during the 1943 famine in Bengal. When I spoke to famine survivors of West Midnapore and the Sunderbans, they corroborated this. They mentioned mylor dana (grain sorghum), bulga (sawa millet) and shyama ghaser beej (seeds of jungle rice).
Travel writer Jagannath Ghosh journeyed extensively across the arid zones of Bengal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh between 1970 and 2010. He had seen villagers survive on kutki, kangui and sawa. People in Amlashole, West Midnapore — where nine people died of starvation in 2004 — lived on marua ghas (finger millet).
I realised much later that these seeds of grass actually belong to a large family of millets. These coarse grains used to be the staple in large swathes of arid India and have for centuries helped people stave off famine or starvation deaths. But from the mid-1970s and after the Green Revolution, the Indian government focused on high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, cutting down cultivable fields in which the coarse cereals were grown. Year after year, bumper production of rice and wheat, and subsequent distribution of those grains at a highly subsidised rate through public distribution systems (PDS), added the staple of luxury to the diet of even the poorest.