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How rural women are helping sustain the economy of millets

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How rural women are helping sustain the economy of millets

It is worth noting that the United Nations General Assembly on the Government of India’s proposal (with the support of 72 countries) to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millets.


October 15, which is observed as International Rural Women’s Day by the United Nations, is celebrated as ‘Rashtriya Mahila Kisan Diwas’ by the Government of India, lending a further impetus to women farmers and rural women. In 2021, International Rural Women’s Day was marked with the theme’ rural women cultivating good food for all.’ Converging with the objectives of October 15, it is worth noting October 16 is observed as World Food Day, thus, making it even more pertinent to link food systems with rural women’s empowerment.

With the Government of India encouraging and promoting the production of different millets, and with 2023 being observed globally as the ‘International Year of Millets,’ let’s delve deeper into the role women groups, self-help groups (SHGs), and women farmers have played in sustaining the economy of millets, preserving biodiversity, and maintaining ecological harmony in rural societies.

It is worth noting that the United Nations General Assembly on the Government of India’s proposal (with the support of 72 countries) to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2023 as the International Year of the Millets. Toward this, the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare signed an MoU with National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation (NAFED) to promote and strengthen millet cultivation, production, packaging, and the overall supply chain.

To add to the government’s efforts on biodiversity and seed sovereignty, this week, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) conserved the germplasm of four types of millets in the Kushalgarh region of the Banswara district of Rajasthan as “national assets” to protect indigenous crops. Efforts by the Government of India on such a scale, thus, make sense as India contributes 20 per cent to global millet production and around 80 per cent to the overall millet production in Asia.

Millets: The food of the future

Millets are nutrient-dense traditional grasses favourable to arid climates. Ragi (finger millet), Jowar (Sorghum), Sama (Little millet), Bajra (pearl millet), Variga (Porso millet), and other minor millets such as Kodu and Kutki are some examples.

With the latest trends in consumption and food choices, millets have, over the years, transformed from being the humble farmer’s choice of nutrition to finding their way into elite consumption baskets. Globally, in the wake of water and food crises and unprecedented climate events impacting the world’s food systems, millet cultivation has become a climate-smart proposition, especially in areas prone to extreme weather events. Many Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies have forayed into packaged millet-based foods catering to the festive season, with millet-based flour, snacks, and chips available to the health-conscious, urban consumer.

Realising the vast potential of these Nutri-cereals, numerous initiatives are being undertaken to promote the Indian variety of millets. For instance, at FAO’s recently organised ‘One Country, One Product’ Conference, India represented the case of millets. Social media handles of the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare and the Ministry of Food Processing regularly engage users to publicise and brand unique millet recipes, their health advantages, and nutritional values. Some examples are Kodo risotto, pistachio-millet burfee, truffles, ragi mudde, ragi chocolate muffins, proso gluten-free bread, and ragi cookies. Similarly, other popular delicacies include kodo mathri, kodo namak para, kutki pulao, ragi pasta, ragi dosa, ‘mandua’ ragi idlis, multi-millet namkeen, millet-muesli, kodo naan khatai, bajra khakri, jowar dosa, biscuits, kodo kheer, and sama kheer are other delectable recipes.

Millets’ integral role in the prosperity of rural women Ranjita (35), who is associated with the Millet Magic Foundation in Mohanpur village of the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, specialises in producing and packaging millets. She procures and collects ‘mandia’ or ragi cultivated in the village. The Government of India supports the entire cluster under the SFURTI (Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries) programme. Ranjita makes Rs 6000 a month through this millet-based enterprise. The Foundation’s ragi-jaggery cookies, ragi wafers, and laddoos made with other ingredients are quite popular. Odisha is, in fact, one of the largest millet-producing states. The state government this year is celebrating the ‘Odisha Millet Diwas’ on November 10. With schemes such as Odisha Millet Mission, Mission Shakti, and ORMAS, many women like Ranjita associated with rural women groups and SHGs benefit immensely.

Similarly, in the Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, for example, the ‘Tejaswini rural women’s empowerment programme’ is committed to empowering thousands of rural women by encouraging them to grow traditional kodo and kutki. Wainganga SHG in Keolari block of Seoni district also specialises in producing and packaging Kodo Kutki minor millets and other products such as honey, papad, pickles, forest teas, ayurvedic produce, lemongrass tea, and so on.

In several other parts of the country, SHG Didis and SHG Sakhis are running millet food canteens and cafes. For example, with the help of the district administration in the Raigarh district of Chhattisgarh, the first all-millets café run by ‘Vikas Mahila Sangh’ was inaugurated. Women members of this group received training programmes in nutritious recipes such as kodo biryani, ragi idlis, pizza, noodles, cakes, momos, pakodas, and cheela – all made of Ragi or ‘Madiya,’ as it is locally called in the state. In its attempt to holistically empower farmers, the state of Chhattisgarh even announced the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for kodo and kutki, aiming to benefit not just women farmers but small and marginal farmers – that account for roughly 85 percent of the farming population in the country.

Neeraja Kudrimoti, State Programme Officer of the Aspirational Districts Programme, Chhattisgarh, says, “Millets are planet friendly, farmer’s emergency fallback, and nutrition rich, and must, therefore, be a part of our food systems.”

In the budget initiatives proposed for 2022, much focus has been given to the post-harvest value chain, processing, and packaging of millets – the most critical areas needing attention. It must be noted, however, the supply chain of millets is rife with challenges. The millet’s post-harvest stage is labour-intensive and characterised by low technological innovations. Women are usually involved in the post-harvest processing stages. Thus, investments in good quality equipment such as dehullers and trainings of women farmers are needed to eliminate gender biases resulting from the exclusion of women on account of mechanisation in agricultural systems.

Such mechanisation excludes women from agricultural or economic parity in informal economies and restricts them to traditional agrarian roles limiting their role diversification.

As seen in millet cafes, empowering SHGs with a gender-focused and community-led development approach can help bridge the gender gap in farming systems. Through dedicated programmes such as the Ministry of Rural Development’s Deen Dayal Antyodaya- National Rural Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NRLM), Tripura DAY NRLM, and other State Rural Livelihoods Missions, and food processing initiatives, women farmer producer groups and women-led SHGs can play critical roles in the millet’s supply chain.

Efforts such as the celebration of programmes such as ‘Rashtriya Poshan Maah’ of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, with a focused approach to women empowerment based on millet-based foods, also contribute to food and nutrition security initiatives. One example is the distribution of ragi laddoos and millet-energy bars at Anganwadi centres in some states. Through their dedicated efforts, Anganwadi workers ANMs (Auxillary Nurse Midwife) and ‘Poshan Sakhis’ help combat hunger and malnutrition through initiatives such as the Poshan Abhiyaan addressing nutritional deficiency and promoting nutrition entrepreneurship.

Similarly, through various innovative efforts, advocacy and awareness around millets as traditional superfoods are regularly undertaken by rural women. One example is that of showcasing ‘rangolis,’ made of indigenous foods, millets, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and forest produce. Other efforts include celebrating events like the ‘Millet and Moringa’ festival.

All these efforts put together not only contribute to the social and economic mobility of women but also support the objectives of the ‘Vocal for Local’ and the ‘Atmanirbharta’ campaigns.

Ecological harmony

Rural women are harbingers of biodiversity. Their prominent roles in seed conservation, environmental protection, water conservation, nutrition security, and waste management help contribute to climate equity and justice. The government realises millets’ enormous potential for maintaining agricultural diversity and environmental protection. For instance, growing nutrient-dense millets is less cost intensive. Take rice, for example, which needs around 3000-4,000 litres of water per kilogram. On the other hand, millets like jowar require very little water.

Moving away from monocropping wheat and rice promotes crop and income diversification. With targets such as doubling farmers’ incomes and initiatives needed to strengthen rural livelihoods and significantly enhancing the position of women farmers, boosting millet cultivation is conducive to agricultural and economic prosperity.

An abundant crop of Ragi. (Picture Credit: Aspirational District Team, Dantewada, Chhattisgarh)The way forward: Millets, policy and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Through millet-based women empowerment initiatives, the government directly contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): SDG 1 on no poverty, SDG 2 on zero hunger, SDG 5 on gender equality, SDG 12 on responsible consumption and production, and finally, SDG 13 on climate action, thereby making millets even more relevant for public policy. Integration of millet production with objectives of schemes such as the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) and Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme, and other government programmes will contribute to sustained livelihoods. onvergence programmes will also help achieve targets under institutional partnerships envisaged under SDG # 17.

Moreover, a sustained millet cultivation campaign shall also empower and enable indigenous peoples, Adivasis, and bring to focus their indispensable ecological roles in maintaining local food supply chains, preserving local cultures, and conserving the environment.


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