Fact: about 30 million acres of land in India are under millet cultivation.
Fact: millets like jowar, bajra and ragi are eaten widely across the country.
Fact: millets take just over two months from sowing to cultivation, and can grow in the most difficult of conditions, providing a source of income to farmers.
Fact: with irrigation still a problem in many regions across the country, it makes more sense to cultivate millets than a water-intensive grain like rice.
And yet, millet farmers across India have been struggling for a long time, because the grain they cultivate is largely neglected.
With an aim to bring this struggle into the spotlight, about 100 women farmers from nine states gathered in New Delhi last week to form the National Millet Sisters Network.
Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, inaugurated the network, which consists of over 5,000 millet growing women farmers, in addition to millet consumers.
The network was launched alongside the fifth National Convention on Millets, conducted at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, with the theme 'enhancement of millet area to realise a nutritionally secure India'.
The network is an initiative of the Deccan Development Society (DDS), a grass-roots organisation based in Telangana, and the Millet Network of India (MINI), an alliance of more than 145 groups of farmers, scientists and media persons from across 13 states.
Impact of the Green Revolution
The women millet farmers' grouping, the first of its kind in the country, is aimed at advancing the cause of the neglected coarse grain, which was a traditional crop in the country.
For the poor, especially the tribals in the highland areas and farmers in the dry regions, millets were a staple diet, and acted as a crucial nutritional supplement.
However, ever since India's Green Revolution brought with it high yielding varieties of rice and wheat, the cultivation area of millets has come down by over 45%. Rice and wheat overtook millets as state policies supported the former grains with large scale subsidies, and by distributing them through the public distribution system (PDS).
At the end of the two-day convention, the farmers, along with civil society groups, scientists, policy makers, activists and environmentalists, have drawn up a declaration, affirming the future actions needed to help the cause of the crop. A representation from the Millet Sisters Network was submitted to Union Minister for Food and Public Distribution Ram Vilas Paswan.
Among the major demands is the implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013, which has made provision for the inclusion of millets in the PDS. However, barring Karnataka, none of the other states have implemented it so far.
In addition, the convention reiterated the demands made in previous years to provide income support and nutrition bonuses to millet farmers for their contribution to stopping climate change and conserving water. Millet farming is rain-fed and does not require external irrigation like rice and wheat cultivation, which require huge water supply, thus putting a strain on the country's water resources.
The declaration also urged for the immediate inclusion of millets in the ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services), to combat the country's alarming malnutrition problem among children and women in particular. The nutrition rates among millets have been proved to be much higher than rice and wheat - the most popular cereals in India.
Maneka's positive words
Inaugurating the function, Maneka Gandhi said: "Millets are in my mind for a long time."
She said despite spending a huge amount of money on PDS and ICDS, people were still being given low quality food with little nutrition content. The minister affirmed that the introduction of millet-centred diet in food distribution centres was crucial.
Gandhi said her plan was to make available nutrition packets containing a powder of millet and pulses, which would be distributed to schools, day-care centres and PDS centres, to ensure a standardised nutrition-rich food was consumed.
Calling for greater awareness and lobbying for millets, she said the present marketing was inadequate to promote millets, and there wsa a need to take the product to stores all over the country, especially places such as hospitals.
A dire need
In the context of the recent trend where a few multinational seed companies have started acquiring the intellectual property rights to many millet varieties, the declaration urged the government to safeguard the interest of small and marginal millet farmers.
"We felt a dire need for the scattered millet farmers in the country to come together to fight for their common cause," says Jayasri Cherukuri, Joint Director of the Deccan Development Society, adding that the idea to create a network had been in the making for a year.
While stressing that the network would give much needed momentum to the struggles of millet farmers, she said: "Farmers will be more confident and will be in a better position to fight for their demands as a coherent group. It is also an opportunity for farmers to know each other, understand other's problems and find solutions."
Ponnuthai, a traditional millet farmer from Tamil Nadu, who shifted from the commercial sugar cane cultivation to millet farming due to the scarcity of water, affirmed that the network was the need of the hour.
According to her, the grouping represents a larger fight against many ailments plaguing traditional farmers - such as land degradation, loss of seed sovereignty, ground water depletion, health risks due to inorganic farming, etc.
"In this context, the small and marginal women farmers must join the fight to reclaim the traditional crops to safeguard the community's food security and sovereignty," Ponnuthai said.
Across the millet farmers, the common issues echoed were the lack of processing units for millets and the low market price for the crop. They also demanded for a convergence of MNREGA with millet cultivation, to further increase the production.
Seno Tsuhah from the North East Network, a women's rights organisation working in the Northeast, argued that women and marginal farmers had been left behind in the current agricultural system, which was driven only by greed for production and profit.
"We must bring back the people's knowledge in traditional agriculture," she said. "Reviving millet-based biodiverse farming is crucial in improving the health of soil, humans, seeds, and is crucial for the well being of the future generations."
Edited by Shreyas Sharma