As one of the world’s 17 mega-diverse countries, vis-a-vis its flora and fauna, sustaining crop diversity is of critical importance in India. For a country to be considered a “mega-diverse”, it needs to have at least 5,000 species of endemic plants and marine border ecosystems. How is India managing this bounty of nature that also assures its food security? With affection and passion? With meticulous cropping programmes for various agro-climatic zones? Or with callousness? Sustaining this mega-diversity is a factor of diligent crop management with specific cropping programmes with regard to regional crops, mixed crops, nutritional aspects, availability of water and soil types. India seems to be falling short on all these counts.
Prior to the chemical-intensive Green Revolution, Indian farmers depended mostly on rain-fed farming under which numerous region-specific traditional aus rice, wheat and millet varieties were grown. There was no question of crop failure due to lack of irrigation. In India, the rain-fed area spreads across 177 districts and out of the total net sown area of 136.8 million ha, nearly 50 per cent of the land falls in this category. Rainfed farming produces 48 per cent of food crops and 68 per cent of non-food crops. Even so, 61 per cent of Indian farmers rely on rain-fed farming. Around 55 per cent of the gross cropped area is under rain-fed farming that produces 40 per cent of the rice, 69 per cent of the oilseeds, 73 per cent the cotton, 83 per cent the pulses and 89 per cent the millet. Moreover, 70 per cent of livestock farming is dependent on rain.
Millet is one of the oldest cereals suitable for cultivation in rain-fed areas under marginal conditions of soil fertility and moisture. Being a water prudent crop, it can cope with issues like climate change, drought, low moisture, poverty and malnutrition. Its efficient root system can manage 28 per cent of the rainfall that is needed for paddy. In other words, water needed for an acre of summer paddy can be used to grow millet for 30 years consecutively on the same land!
The commonly grown Indian millets are ragi (finger millet), jawar (sorghum or great millet), bajra (pearl millet), jhangora (barnyard millet), barri (proso or common millet), kangni (foxtail/ Italian millet), kora (kodo millet), kutki (little millet) and such others. Millet is rich in dietary fibre, minerals like iron, calcium, beta carotene and folic acid with a low glycemic index and no gluten, an amino acid that causes allergy. Obviously, it can be used for iron and calcium-deficient people, diabetics or people suffering from celiac and cardiovascular diseases. Processed forms of millet, like biscuits, noodles, bread, cake, laddoo, barfi, pasta, idli, bada, soup and others find a ready market due to their taste and nutritive qualities. Millet beer is also popular. Post-processing, millet can be taken in various ways like khichdi, upma, dosa, pulao, roti, pitha and others. However, those not used to millet need time for their stomachs to get used to it. Those keen to consider millet as the main staple need to take small amounts every day along with their normal staple and gradually get adjusted to consuming millet. Despite the importance of millet in India’s food basket, over the years there has been a decline in the cultivated area under millet by as much as about 80 per cent for small millets (kutki), 46 per cent for finger millet, 59 per cent for sorghum and 23 per cent for pearl millet, leading to a decline in millet production. This was driven by a change in consumption patterns, lack of support from the public distribution system, conversion of irrigated areas for wheat and rice cultivation, low yields, unavailability of technology to enhance yield, new dietary habits, and reduced demand. During 2016-17 the area under the cultivation of millet declined by 60 per cent to 14.72 million hectares. With rice and wheat being supplied in tribal-dominated areas through the PDS, both the area under millet and its consumption have fallen.
Tribals now consume rice and wheat amidst growing complaints about health issues. An important social aspect was also overlooked in the process of weaning the tribal away from millet. Lives and rituals of the tri- bal communities in India have been interwoven with millet. Not just were traditions getting lost, also ignored was the looming climate change that poses a major threat for most modern crop varieties that cannot cope with the anthropocentric rise of temperature, sudden floods, erratic rainfall and such phenomenon.
On the one hand, no genetically-modified crop variety can tolerate the ongoing global war- ming and, on the other, 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 amongst the millet-growing states. Sporadic millet areas are found in West Bengal and some forms of millet have been cultivated in the red lateritic belts of West Bengal and Darjeeling district, where some millet still survives. Despite years of neglect, India continues to be the largest producer of millet in the world. Compared to water-guzzling cereals like rice and wheat, its yield is low, but it has higher nutritional value. Under the Guli Ragi method of cultivation, the yield of finger millet can be enhanced to 5.5 tonnes per ha, which is what the chemical-intensive modern rice gives. Also, there are some short-duration millets that can be harvested in just about 65 days and serve as important Nutri cereals without any artificial food fortification. This is especially valuable for India because it also yields fodder for cattle. The storability of millet is another feature in its favour because millets can be stored as a buffer stock for two years and more. There is a growing consciousness about millet after the incalculable harm done to this produce. India’s Millet Mission under the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), launched in October 2007 saw the government of India declare 2018 as the year of millets and termed it a Nutri-cereal. The UN too supported 70 nations and declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets with a view to raising awareness about the Nutri-cereal and millet’s suitability for cultivation under changing climatic conditions.
India’s Prime Minister, Nar- endra Modi, endorsed it by saying that “India was honoured to be at the forefront of popularizing millets as a food grain”. The Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad, under the ICAR, started working on millets through All India Coordinated Research Projects in 14 centres in 14 states but the programme has to counter years of mismanagement. In 1961, the Economic Research Services of USDA only considered rice and wheat to calculate calorie deficits in Asia and this data was used to argue that there was a food crisis by the U.S. government and the Rockefeller Foundation. Accordingly, chemical-intensive cultivation of cereals like modern rice varieties and dwarf wheat varieties with irrigation were promoted. They progressively expunged not only all the region-specific varieties of rice and wheat but also squeezed the area of pulse, oilseed, and millet. The Green Revolution sought to augment the yield of rice and wheat through chemical-intensive farming. Admitted- ly, during the initial phase of the US-led Green Revolution, the yield of the cereal crops increased. India currently produces nearly 305 million tons of food.
Even so, in 2021 India ranked 103 in the World Hunger Index among 116 countries, making it important to review the consequences of the Green Revolution, especially in terms of soil erosion, heavy metal toxicity in soil, depletion and contamination of groundwater! Widespread usage of weedicide in crop fields and railway tracks poses a threat to human and animal health, as well as the microbial and earthworm population in the soil. Nearby ponds and canals are severely contaminated. The decline in the soil organic matter, soil microbes, trace elements, decreasing population of pollinating insects and an increase in human disease are the major concerns today as the last 50 years have seen the disappearance of numerous crop varieties which no scientist can bring back. The regret is that there has yet to be a proper assessment of the traditional varieties, while the media has been used to propagate incorrect information against the traditional varieties as being low yielders. This oversimplification is not scientifically tenable and tantamount to describing all Indians as dark-skinned or naked fakirs.
The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi preserves a lot of seeds in a special container, maintaining appropriate temperature and humidity. It is not certain how many of those varieties are alive. Different climatic disasters like the Aila of May 2009 serve as pointers to how the traditional salt-tolerant rice varieties coped with the disaster unlike the modern salt-tolerant rice varieties like Lunisri. These modern salt-tolerant varieties do give larger yields but cannot tolerate high salinity in the soil.
(The writer is a well-known agricultural scientist and was Deputy Director of Agriculture, Jhargram)