How millets were displaced across Uttarakhand’s hillsides (and why we need to bring them back)

“Dal chawal. Aloo sabzi.”
“Roti. Chawal. Aloo fry.”
“Aloo paratha. Maggi.”

In August last year, I spent nearly two weeks in Uttarakhand. For the most part, I ate on the go – in roadside dhabas, train stations, and guesthouses. Whether I was in Almora or Ranikhet or on the way to Munsyari, a hill station at 7,200 feet, whether I was in Dehradun or in the village of Tipli in Tehri Garhwal – the meal on offer was essentially the same. White rice, wheat (in the form of roti or instant noodles), and some variation of potato. I was travelling across the state on a reporting assignment, and nearly everywhere I went, pahadi khana seemed to have been supplanted by a starchy sameness.

In local homestays too, potatoes, rice, and wheat were equally ubiquitous, but I did get to try regional specialties like rajma, bhatt ka dubka (a dal made with black soybeans) and pathyud (colocasia leaves fried with gramflour), usually accompanied by cups of very sweet chai. Simple meals were served with delicious condiments, sometimes bhaang ki chutney, sometimes flavoured salt, hand-ground with garlic and chilli. But in both commercial establishments and home kitchens, millets were nowhere to be found.

Along with Karnataka, Uttarakhand has long been a stronghold of millets. While ragi mudde and jolada rotti are traditional staples of the south, madua ki roti (made with finger millet) and jhangore ki kheer (made with barnyard millet) is considered typical Kumaoni and Garhwali fare. However, it’s clear that tastes have changed.

“Now we don’t eat as much madua as we used to. Only the older people still like it. We know it’s good for health and it makes you stronger, but the children won’t eat it,” said Lakshmi Adhikari, a member of Umang, a collective of self-help groups in Almora. I met a group of women farmers in a village near Ranikhet who echoed her sentiments. Their children wouldn’t even look at madua, they said. Some would even check their plates to make sure there were no millets in their food.

The story, by now, is a familiar one. During India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice were quickly adopted, displacing coarse grains on our plates and fields. Cereal output grew rapidly; in a few years, India was no longer importing grain.

But this productivity came at a cost. Those high-yielding varieties depend on irrigation, and they’re hungry for chemical inputs like fertilisers and pesticides. Today, groundwater is scarce, soils have been degraded, our waterways are polluted with agricultural runoff. Hundreds of traditional seed varieties have disappeared, and with them, we’ve lost diversity in our diets too. In just a few generations, unprocessed, unrefined grains began to be viewed as “coarse”; what was wholesome was pushed aside. The country’s nutritional security suffered – hunger is still present, while rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease have soared.

Finger millet’s dense, earthy flavour is unpalatable to those who’ve become used to the bland softness of wheat and white rice. These days, its colour is considered unappetising too, said Suman Sahai, the founder of Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation that works to conserve genetic diversity and promote millets in Uttarakhand. “I was in a meeting one day, and I asked one little girl why she didn’t eat madua ki roti. ‘Because I’ll get dark,’ she told me. I said to her, ‘Your grandmother, who has eaten only millet rotis, is very fair. And fair and dark is hardly something you should be bothered about. Are you healthy? Your grandmother is very healthy,’” Sahai recounted.

If the Green Revolution took its toll on millet production – diminishing its value, and therefore its cultural standing – India’s Targeted Public Distribution system, designed to address food insecurity among the poor, marginalized these grains even further. As part of the PDS, the government currently supplies 5kg of highly subsidized rice and wheat per person per month to around 81 crore people. These food grains are purchased from farmers at a Minimum Support Price, which is higher than the market price. Unsurprisingly, this skewed production heavily towards resource-intensive wheat and rice, and disincentivised farmers from growing low-input crops like pulses and millets. (The National Food Security Act of 2013 deemed that “coarse grains” should be included in the food basket at Re 1/kg, but in practice, this rarely happens. Procurement is patchy, and so far, Karnataka is the only state to have included ragi as a ration under PDS.)

Of course, there are several other factors that have contributed to the decline of millets. We can look to liberalisation in the ’90s, India’s rapid urbanisation, the explosion of packaged foods in even the most remote areas of the country – all these, too, have played a part in making traditional grains less appealing to younger generations. Subrat Sharma, a climate scientist at the GB Pant Institute National Institute of Himalayan Environment and Sustainable Development in Almora, put it this way: “Maggi, pasta, pizza: these are the new development markers.”

So even as ragi enjoys a revival of sorts in some urban pockets, millets continue to fall out of favour. In Uttarakhand, just as in other parts of the country, the area under millet cultivation has been steadily declining in recent years. In 2011-12, according to data from the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, finger millet covered 125,000 hectares of agricultural land in the state. By 2015-16, this had dropped to 107,000 hectares. Put another way, in just four years, the equivalent of more than 25,000 football fields fell out of finger millet cropping.

Supported by a grant from the Earth Journalism Network, I was in Uttarakhand to produce a three-part audio report focused on climate change in the mid-hills, and its impact on farming communities in the region. The state falls in the central region of the Himalayas – which, like the poles, is on the frontlines of climate change. Several climate modelling studies indicate that the higher the altitude, the faster the rate of temperature rise. The mountains are heating up much faster than the plains, and communities in these regions – where agriculture has always been rainfed and marginal – find their livelihoods to be increasingly threatened.

Many have abandoned farming entirely. In fact, Uttarakhand has some of the highest rates of out-migration in the country; today, hundreds of “bhootiyan gaon” or ghost villages dot its slopes. Those who remain face a struggle ahead. Some farmers, like those in Tipli, have set up informal “climate farmer schools”, and are actively monitoring weather patterns to ready themselves for the changes to come. Many are turning to horticultural crops, like plums and pears (and potatoes), chamomile tea, and aromatic herbs – which for now, seem to be commercially viable. Non-government organisations like Umang and Central Himalayan Rural Action Group (CHIRAG) help these farmer groups market their produce. The state government, for its part, is seeking to curb the crisis in the hills by introducing Green Revolution techniques to these areas. I met with scientists at The Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sansthan (ICAR-VPKAS) in Almora, who are developing high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties for the hills, that they say will be more tolerant of the vagaries of the climate.

Ironically though, millets, those much-maligned crops, appear to be the most sustainable solution in a future characterised by warming temperatures, reduced snowfall and erratic rains. Crops like rice and wheat adapt poorly to these conditions; millets thrive.

Advocates like Vandana Shiva have long maintained that the crops and farming practices of the past are the only way forward. In 2017, even Radha Mohan Singh, the Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, stated that “In times of climate change, [millets] are often the last crop standing and, thus, are a good risk management strategy for resource-poor marginal farmers.” Recent research indicates that biodiverse conservation agriculture – the kind that millets have traditionally been a feature of – can actually mitigate the effects of climate change, as it sequesters carbon from the air into the soil. But without robust policy support, it’s no easy task to expect farmers in Uttarakhand – resource-poor, marginal, or otherwise – to grow more madua, or to feed it to their families.

Farmers have to think it’s good to eat – which, in reality, often has more to do with taste than nutrition. And they have to know that it will sell. That’s why proponents of millet cultivation in Uttarakhand, like geneticist Suman Sahai, have resorted to rather unorthodox, creative measures to boost its popularity among local communities. “We have done lots of little trainings and workshops with kids and mothers together, making fun stuff with millets. We’ve made mixtures, namkeen, even millet kurkure. I thought, let them eat it in whichever way they want, but let them start eating it,” she said.

The upside, of course, is that value-added millet snacks fetch a far better price in the market than the grain. It’s an income that farmers could count on in an unstable climate. And if it’s an appealing proposition for people – not just the planet – we might potentially see madua return to these hillsides. “The other runaway hit here is Maggi. If we can make millet noodles, which is what we intend to try, then why not have your Maggi? But have a millet Maggi,” said Sahai.

For more details, listen to the three-part podcast on climate change in Uttarakhand on www.foodradioproject.com.


Amrita Gupta


 

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