As one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world, vis-à-vis its flora and fauna, maintaining cultural diversity is of critical importance in India. For a country to be considered “mega-diverse”, it must have at least 5,000 endemic plant species and bordering marine ecosystems. How does India manage this natural wealth which also ensures its food security? With affection and passion? With careful cultivation programs for different agro-climatic zones? Or with insensitivity? Maintaining this mega-diversity is a factor in diligent crop management with specific cultivation programs regarding regional crops, mixed crops, nutritional aspects, water availability and soil types. India seems to fall short on all these points.
Prior to the chemical-intensive Green Revolution, Indian farmers depended primarily on rain-fed agriculture in which many traditional varieties of rice, wheat, and aus-specific millet were grown. There was no question of crop failure due to lack of irrigation. In India, the rainfed zone extends over 177 districts and out of the total net sown area of 136.8 million hectares, almost 50% of the land belongs to this category. Rainfed agriculture produces 48% of food crops and 68% of non-food crops. Despite this, 61% of Indian farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture. About 55% of the gross cultivated area is under rainfed agriculture which produces 40% of rice, 69% of oilseeds, 73% of cotton, 83% of pulses and 89% of millet. In addition, 70% of livestock production depends on the rain.
Millet is one of the oldest cereals suitable for cultivation in rainfed areas under marginal conditions of soil fertility and moisture. Being a water-saving crop, it can face problems such as climate change, drought, low humidity, poverty and malnutrition. Its efficient root system can handle 28% of the rainfall needed for paddy. In other words, the water needed for one acre of summer paddy can be used to grow millet for 30 consecutive years on the same land!
Commonly grown Indian millets are ragi (finger millet), jawar (sorghum or tall millet), bajra (pearl millet), jhangora (barnyard millet), barri (proso or common millet), kangni ( foxtail / Italian millet), kora (kodo millet), kutki (small millet) and others. Millet is rich in dietary fiber, minerals like iron, calcium, beta-carotene, and low-glycemic, gluten-free folic acid, an allergy-causing amino acid. Obviously it can be used for people with iron and calcium deficiency, diabetics or people with celiac and cardiovascular diseases. Processed forms of millet, like cookies, noodles, bread, cakes, laddoo, barfi, pasta, idli, bada, soup and others are finding a ready market due to their taste and their nutritional qualities. Millet beer is also popular. Post processing, millet can be taken in different ways like khichdi, upma, dosa, pulao, roti, pitha and others. However, those who are not used to millet need time for their stomach to get used to it. Those who wish to consider millet as the main staple food should take small amounts of it daily in addition to their normal staple food and gradually adapt to the consumption of millet. Despite the importance of millet in India’s food basket, over the years the area under millet has declined by around 80% for pearl millet (kutki), 46% for finger millet, 59% for sorghum and 23% for pearl millet, resulting in lower millet production. This was driven by a change in consumption habits, lack of support from the public distribution system, conversion of irrigated areas for wheat and rice cultivation, low yields, unavailability of technology to improve the yield, new eating habits and reduced demand. In 2016-2017, the area cultivated with millet decreased by 60% to 14.72 million hectares. As rice and wheat are supplied to predominantly tribal areas through the PDS, the area under millet and its consumption have declined.
Tribes are now consuming rice and wheat amid growing complaints of health issues. An important social aspect has also been overlooked in the process of weaning the tribe from millet. The life and rituals of tribal communities in India have been intertwined with millet. Not only the traditions have been lost, but the impending climate change has also been ignored, which poses a major threat to most modern crop varieties that cannot cope with the anthropocentric increase in temperature, flash floods , erratic rainfall and other phenomena.
On the one hand, no genetically modified crop variety can tolerate the ongoing global warming and, on the other hand, Indian millet grows over vast agro-climatic regions and is naturally quite resilient. Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are among the millet producing states. Sporadic areas of millet are found in West Bengal and some forms of millet have been grown in the red laterite belts of West Bengal and Darjeeling district, where millet still survives. Despite years of neglect, India continues to be the largest millet producer in the world. Compared to water-intensive cereals such as rice and wheat, its yield is low, but its nutritional value is higher. With the Guli Ragi cultivation method, the yield of finger millet can be increased to 5.5 tons per ha, which is what modern chemical-intensive rice gives. Additionally, there are short-lived millets that can be harvested in as little as 65 days and serve as important Nutri cereals without any artificial food fortification. This is particularly valuable for India as it also produces fodder for livestock. The storability of millet is another feature in its favor as millet can be stored as a buffer stock for two years and more. There is a growing awareness of millet after the incalculable damage done to this product. India’s National Food Security Mission (NFSM) Millet Mission, launched in October 2007, saw the Indian government declare 2018 as the year of millet and branded it a nutri-cereal. The UN has also supported 70 nations and declared 2023 the International Year of Millet to raise awareness of the suitability of the nutri-cereal and millet to be grown under changing climatic conditions.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, endorsed it, saying “India is honored to be at the forefront of popularizing millet as a food grain.” The Indian Institute of Millet Research, Hyderabad under the aegis of ICAR has started working on millets through coordinated research projects from all over India in 14 centers in 14 states, but the program must address years of mismanagement. In 1961 the USDA Economic Research Services considered only rice and wheat to calculate calorie deficits in Asia and this data was used to assert that there was a food crisis by the US government and the Foundation Rockefeller. As a result, intensive chemical cultivation of cereals like modern rice varieties and dwarf wheat varieties with irrigation has been promoted. They not only phased out all region-specific varieties of rice and wheat, but also reduced the acreage of pulses, oilseeds, and millet. The Green Revolution sought to increase the yield of rice and wheat through chemical-intensive agriculture. Certainly, during the initial phase of the green revolution led by the United States, the yield of cereal crops increased. India currently produces nearly 305 million tons of food.
Despite this, in 2021, India ranked 103 in the Global Hunger Index among 116 countries, making it important to consider the consequences of the Green Revolution, especially in terms of soil erosion, toxicity of heavy metals in soils, depletion and contamination of groundwater! The widespread use of weed killers in cultivated fields and railway tracks poses a threat to human and animal health, as well as to the microbial and earthworm population in the soil. Nearby ponds and canals are severely contaminated. Declining soil organic matter, soil microbes, micronutrients, declining population of pollinating insects and increasing human disease are major concerns today as the last 50 years have seen the disappearance of many varieties of crops that no scientist can bring back. The regret is that there has not yet been proper evaluation of traditional varieties, while the media has been used to propagate misinformation against traditional varieties as low yielding. This oversimplification is not scientifically tenable and amounts to describing all Indians as dark-skinned or naked fakirs.
The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi keeps a large number of seeds in a special container, maintaining proper temperature and humidity. It is not known how many of these varieties are alive. Different climatic disasters like the Aila of May 2009 serve as indicators on how well traditional salt-tolerant rice varieties coped with the disaster unlike modern salt-tolerant rice varieties like Lunisri. These modern salt-tolerant varieties give larger yields but cannot tolerate high salinity in the soil.
(The author is a well-known agricultural scientist and was Deputy Director of Agriculture, Jhargram)