Read full article By Saurav Verma@ Village Square Photo Credit: Saurav Verma
The Gond tribes, custodians of agro-biodiversity in central India, have traditionally grown millets that are suited to local climate and terrain. The dying practice needs revival and encouragement.
Kodo millet stored by a farmer in Khamri in Panna, where most of the tribes have stopped millet cultivation (Photo by Saurav Vema)Kodo millet stored by a farmer in Khamri in Panna, where most of the tribes have stopped millet cultivation (Photo by Saurav Vema)
“We don’t know how everyone stopped growing kodo and kutki. My father used to grow them when I was a child. Then the millets slowly vanished,” said Pradeep Yadav (45), a farmer from Gahadra village in Panna district.
Known for growing well in dry zones under minimal soil fertility and moisture, kodo (kodo millet) and kutki (little millet) are minor millets grown across India as rain-fed crops. These were the traditional crops of Gond Tribes of Bundelkhand, specifically of Panna region that has a predominant population of Scheduled Tribes, Gonds primarily, and other depressed communities.
Tribal communities are mostly dependent on forests, farming and other labor work for which they migrate for a significant period in a year. In the past few years, they have been facing problems due to displacement from forests, man-animal conflicts, poor agriculture yields and fewer livelihood opportunities, resulting in a critical situation of poverty and vulnerability.
Lately, people in the region, especially the tribes, have stopped their long-established practice of growing kodo and kutki millets, and instead grow crops such as wheat, sesame, mustard and pulses.
Kodo and kutki usually grow better under dry weather conditions. Hilly upland and stony lands with low water retention capacity are generally fit for these crops. The Bundelkhand region has such terrains, where the land has stones with a mixture of black and red-yellow soils that are poor in organic nutrients.
The climate is hot and semi-humid. Summers are the hottest, with temperature rising beyond 400-420 C. Availability of water, especially of good quality, is a luxury, apart from the rainy season. Surface water runs off fast in the hilly uplands, decreasing the rate of recharge. The high uncertainty in rainfall accounts for recurring famines, floods and droughts.
According to Pannalal Tiwari of Gahadra village, millets cannot be grown in the same place again. So the villagers practiced shifting cultivation. “My grandfather had a big land. He segregated them into different patches for kodo and kutki, other millets and vegetables, besides a barren patch. He used to rotate the crop land and barren land,” he said.
Tiwari’s grandfather divided the land among his sons and they among their offspring. Over time the landholdings have become smaller and practicing shifting cultivation has become difficult.
In addition to smaller landholdings, shifting cultivation has become impossible because of restrictions under Wildlife Protection Act. Previously the tribes cultivated crops on any patch of forestland they found available, which they can’t do now.
The tribal villages are mainly situated in the buffer zone of Panna Tiger Reserve and the tribes’ livelihood depends on the forest for millennia. Restrictions in the use of forestland for agriculture by the forest department have increased over the past decade. Restrictions and discontinuing shifting cultivation meant giving up millet cultivation.
“Rotis made of kodo are very nutritious. Kutki grains, tiny and white, are tasty too. The older the grain, the tastier it is. It can be stored for many years without any treatment unlike wheat and rice,” said Tiwari.
High in nutrition, kodo and kutki are gluten-free and non-acid forming foods. These are considered to be the least allergenic and most digestible grains available. They are high in minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium; hence they will help combat malnourishment in the region.
Iron and phosphorous content of these cereals are higher than in rice and wheat and hence is best suited to tackle iron deficiency in women and children. Anemia among women is very high in this region. The elimination of these millets from their diet could be one of the reasons for increasing anemia and other micronutrient deficiencies.