In a recent convention on Millets, about 60 millet farmers from across 12 states of India restored their hope in the wonder crop amidst current challenges of corporate capture, genetic modification, market maladies and redundant state policies. It was a historic occasion of unfurling the logo of the All India Millet Sisters Network which marked the depth of solidarity and support for the women millet farmers across diverse millet producing communities of the country. This programme was organised by Millet Network of India with ICAR NER and NEN. This year being declared as the National Year for Millets, state interventions on millets seem to be on the foreground through the National Food Security Mission in some of the states across the country. Millets was a pre-green revolution crop which sustained communities surviving in some of the most degraded eco-systems along the coasts, rivers, across hills, mountains, desert and arid expanses. Millets are not mono-crops; they grow as a collective crop. They grow as wild cereals in thick forests along with other spices, lentils and vegetable crops. They also grow in dry lands with maize, soybean and sesame. Millets are regenerative for the soil nutrients through its leguminous properties and sustains through water scarcity. In Nagaland, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur millets have a very strong presence in the staple diet of the hill communities. In flood plains of Assam millets have adorned the Assamese palate through the golden grains of koni dhan during the winter season throughout the dry seasons. Millets are more nutritious than wheat and rice and has healing properties for new age lifestyle diseases like diabetes, pressure and obesity. Millets have fulfilled the super foods criteria for a long time but it has not been seriously marketed and promoted. Millets have also been very popular as nutritional and intoxicating drinks which have situated cultural connotations.
In recent years we can see the rising health concerns which have positioned millets in the forefront. From barnyard millets to kodu millets, from foxtail millets to whole grain cereals, from energy bars to diet shakes, every supermarket shelf space seems to be projecting millets as a nutritious diet. But the journey of millets from the backyard common lands to the supermarket has been quite coarse. As a human society in constant transition we do not have fixed food choices. It changes with time, space, natural conditions and human innovation. Millets have a very critical connotation in the Indian context where Dalit consciousness remains a predominant perspective. In southern state of Telangana, Dalit women farmers from Medak district have grown millets as their staple diet. It took Deccan Development Society to endorse millets into the community based interventions through multiple stakeholders and restore millets within the reach of all sections of society. Today millets have a global presence. In some parts of Africa and Latin America millets are most common.
In Garo hills in Meghalaya, millets are grown by the communities along the farm boundaries. Men sow the seeds and women harvest the crops. Since millets are collective crops it always survives best with diverse combination crops. As a farmer from Himachal Pradesh shared, “Millets as collective crops have given us hope for survival after the monocultures of apples and green revolution in Himachal Pradesh.” Another woman farmer from Gujarat shared about bio-pesticides which she makes with neem leaves, ashes and local herbs. Millets have connected people from across India to engage collectively through practices, policies and perspectives. In Nagaland millets have become the crops of peace building to connect across borders spreading along both national and international boundaries. Such rich knowledge sharing can happen only through people to people connect and consistent solidarity.
Even though millets have such relevance and importance, people still prefer to depend on food crops which are imported from outside the states in North East Region. Millets have reached the supermarkets with exorbitant rates across India which is exclusively available for those who can afford. In Karnataka efforts are being made to ensure that millets are distributed through the public distribution system. But competitive corporate capture of millets is also alarmingly rising through diverse national and international players. When such invasion of food identities happens, millets will no longer be a common crop for good health and nutrition easily available for common people. But it will get a high price which will widen the gap between the millet producers and consumers. In the context of North East India, there is a diversity of coarse grains which are common in rice growing areas as well. Here indigenous grains like red and black rice, scented or Joha rice, mixed dal like Naga dal, maize, millets and sticky rice all varieties have been cluster crops but gradually getting wiped out by chemically treated wheat and rice varieties. Such varieties also dominate the poorer sections of people and disaster stricken population. People seem to be complacent with market delivery of their food choices and palates. Markets cannot define food value rather food values of different crops have to decide the markets. This turn in policy formulation and practice still remains a great need in contemporary times when farmers are committing suicides, agro products are adulterated and industrialisation of agriculture defines the modern mindset of policy framers.