Thursday, October 29, 2009

Feast of Millets

Kanchi Kohli 

             CITIES have forgotten the amazing foods and cuisines they used to once enjoy. To remind them the Millet Network of India (MINI) and Kheti Virasat Mission organised the first ever exhibition of millets at the Press Club in Chandigarh called Bebe di Rasoi (Grandmother’s Kitchen).

A bunch of doughty Punjabi women farmers rustled up an awesome range of foods made from millets. The women have rejected chemical farming and opted for biodiverse natural farming. They call their effort, Trinjan.

The exhibition and the aroma of food roused plenty of curiosity. A 12-year-old girl peered at the exhibits and asked her mother, “What are millets?” There was no response, so she persisted till her mother decided to find out.

This is what Bebe di Rasoi had set out to achieve – get people intrigued about our forgotten foods and food cultures. The Millet Network of India had set itself a challenge, to reach out to city folks for whom the word millet had disappeared from their vocabulary and their dining table.

Millets comprise a variety of food grains like Jowar, Bajra, Mandua, Kangni, Sawan, Kodo or Kutki. They might be called by different names in different regions of the country, but they have at one time been integral to our farms, kitchens and even cultural rituals. Over the years, agricultural text books and policies have come to call them coarse grains or ‘mote anaaj’ (fat grains) in Hindi. Such tagging has given millets a cultural stigma.

But those who understand millets as a concept and not merely as a crop say that these grains are India’s future. It is millets which will be the key to resolving India’s agricultural crisis burdened by farmer suicides and soil degradation. They say this because over the years millets have time and again withstood challenges and provided people with food, water, fibre, health, nutrition, livelihood and ecological balance.

The mixed farming system had an inbuilt food security. It ensured food security for rural households as the failure of one crop was balanced by the survival of another. Every farmer who has practiced mixed farming will tell you that it allows different crops to complement each other’s requirements of nutrient content in soils and gives us examples of how people’s science operates on the ground. Vijay Jardhari from Beej Bachao Andolan, a pioneering farmer’s movement from Uttarakhand, says that in the 2009 drought, it is millets in their village that have coped the best.

It was this belief that got Kheti Virasat Mission, the Millet Network of India and the Press Club of Chandigarh to organise Bebe Di Rasoi. In the agricultural capital of India the concept and content of millet grains has disappeared under the burden of commercialised Green Revolution farming. Nothing short of a statement of intent was needed.

So, Bebe Di Rasoi was organised to conserve and revive the traditional and millet based food of Punjab. It had two critical inspirations. First, was the effort of women farmers from different villages from Punjab to move to biodiverse natural farming.

The second was the linkage to MINI, a network of organisations, scientists, consumers, academicians, policy planners who have taken on the agenda of pushing for millet based farming in India. The network is convened by the Deccan Development Society of Andhra Pradesh which comprises of Dalit women farmers who have exemplified the biodiversity capacity of their small harsh red soils. They till this land, feed nutrition to their families and through their outreach inspire many more women farmers.

That was the beauty of Bebe Di Rasoi – women from Punjab taking on the chemical farming agenda and drawing strength from the women farmers of Andhra Pradesh. They exchanged glances, food and, most importantly, strength.

The event attracted an intrigued urban crowd. The biggest confusion was: which food to choose? Should we opt for the Moth-Bajre ki kichdi with Kaur Tumiyan da achaar from Punjab? Or should we try millet rotis, khichdi, curry and savouries from Andhra? Should we save our greed for the delicious ragi ladoos or head towards the mal puas?

Even the Chief Minister of Punjab, Sardar Prakash Singh Badal could not resist. He was there to inaugurate the seminar on Food Sovereignty and Agricultural Crisis. He heard out PV Satheesh, convenor of MINI, Claude Alvares from the Organic Farming Association of India and Umendra Dutt from Kheti Virasat Mission. They spoke about the looming agricultural crisis and how millet based farming can help us find a way out. The Chief Minister said he eats millets for breakfast every morning and knows their importance. He assured the organisers that he will push for millets to be introduced in midday meals schemes in all schools of Punjab. Now that was surely a step forward.

The rural women from different districts held cookery classes on millet based recipes. Yet we have a long way to go. If one looks at the figures of the Ninth and 10th Five Year Plan allotment of grain share, rice is 42 per cent, wheat 35 per cent and coarse grains, 14 per cent. For years, neither the government’s public distribution system (PDS) nor the markets had space for these highly nutritious grains. In fact, from 1966 to 2006, India lost 44 per cent of millet cultivation areas to other crops.

Today, the nutritional value of major millets like jowar, bajra and ragi are being recognised by consumers and health specialists. So, after years of neglect, millets are finding their place in agricultural research institutes and the agendas of large private companies, this time as nutraceuticals.

Kanchi Kohli is a member of Kalpavriksh environmental action group.