The Revival of Forgotten Millets in Jharkhand, India

15 Oct 2023

“Reviving the consumption of millets among Jharkhand’s local communities brings so many benefits: better health, the restoration of food heritage, and improved social equity by involving everybody in building an improved value chain. And what better time for the project to gain momentum than during the International Year of Millets.” "

- Aruna Tirkey, Jharkhand Slow Food Communities Leader -

In the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, the cultivation of cash crops and loss of traditional food cultures has cast a concerning shadow over indigenous food systems.

This shift is particularly conspicuous among Jharkhand’s youth, who are being lured away from their traditional food culture by fast or junk food, or by poverty-driven dependence toward the country’s Public Distribution System (PDS). White rice has become the grain of choice for India’s PDS and is widely distributed either at subsidized rates or free of charge.

Such change, however, comes at a cost, and Jharkhand’s youth are paying the heaviest price.

A National Family Health survey carried out between 2019 and 2021 found that 67% of the region’s children below the age of five suffered from anemia. Another study, published in the Lancet, revealed that around 80% of the country’s adolescents suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, a kind of malnutrition owing predominantly to the rice and wheat-centric policies and cereal-based PDS.

The short-term, health-related effects are as clear as they are concerning: hampered productivity, a greater risk of disease and higher mortality rates. What is less tangible is the long-term impact on local biodiversity, and the ecological and cultural consequences.

Each year, we produce around 2210 million tons of grains globally. But the production of grains requires a significant water supply, which is what is largely responsible for the depletion of groundwater. Such intensive monoculture farming also leads to deforestation and soil erosion, which negatively impacts local ecosystems and the livelihoods of communities who depend on these ecosystems for their survival.

Alongside Dimna Lake in Jharkhand, India

Few feel these effects more acutely than Jharkhand’s Indigenous communities

But there is a solution—and it stems from the humble millet.

The Revival of Forgotten Millets

Millets are a group of small-seeded, widely varied plant species that are native to many parts of the world and flourish among poor soil fertility, low moisture content and warm climates.

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, the production of millets in India accounted for 17.96 million metric tons between 2020 and 2021. But millet cultivation has been in decline since India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, and has come close to near abandonment over the course of the last decade among Jharkhand’s Indigenous communities.

A cursory glance at the benefits of millets shows why their decline is a cause for concern.

Cultural Significance

Millets are culturally embedded within Jharkhand’s Indigenous communities and are an important item in key cultural rituals associated with birth, death and the remembrance of ancestors. And yet the cultivation of cash crops like tea, coffee or spices offers more of an incentive for these communities.

Their absence is especially felt in Jharkhand, whose Indigenous Munda and Oraon populations battle both the State and corporations against the eradication of their cultures and foodways.

Harvested millets

Climate Resilience

Millets are especially climate resilient.

They are less water-intensive and are shorter duration crops than rice and other grains, making it easy to mitigate climate change challenges.

Community Sustenance

Millets are nutritionally rich and bring a myriad of health benefits, making them well suited to tackle hidden hunger and other health-related issues.

They contain protein, dietary fiber, essential fatty acids, B vitamins, and minerals including iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. Beyond basic nourishment, they also offer additional health benefits like lowering blood sugar levels, controlling blood pressure, and preventing thyroid, cardiovascular and celiac disease.

Dried millets also have a long shelf life, providing better food security and nutrition for communities at risk of hunger.

The Scope of the Project

Slow Food has long recognized the significance of millets as a secure, sustainable, culturally rich food of the future, and this year has seen this recognition gain traction through the General Assembly of the United Nations declaring 2023 the International Year of Millets.

Now, thanks to the Slow Food Negroni Week Fund, the Slow Food Ajam Emba Community has embarked on a campaign to restore the millet to its rightful place, supporting Jharkhand’s Indigenous farmers in millet cultivation, value addition and consumer education.

The project’s overall aim is simple: to revive millet consumption among Jharkhand’s local communities and build an improved millet value chain that benefits everyone involved.

Projected to last just under a year, it envisions several steps ranging from the training of local communities on millet-growing techniques and quality improvement through to branding, packaging and marketing education and the hosting of a food festival showcasing Indigenous millet recipes.

The project has overseen the installation of a millet processing unit in Bangalapadi, Arcode, in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve,  where the millets are de-husked. These de-husked millets are used both for self-consumption, and the remaining millets are procured by the Farmer Producer Company, and sold wholesale or value-added, packaged and marketed following fair-trade principles.

What really sets this project apart is its community focus.

Most activities will be carried out in communities, by communities, to strengthen their independence and food sovereignty. Currently, the project involves around 3000 farmers from Indigenous Irula and Kurumba households in traditional and mixed agriculture, including millet production.

Indigenous communities cultivating millets in Jharkhand, India

Social equity is at the heart of this project. 

The shareholders of the company come from Indigenous Irule and Kurumba communities in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. Roughly 25% of the farmers are women, as are almost 40% of the FPO’s 1809 shareholders. Twenty-nine female staff are also employed in running the local value addition centers. The project also seeks to facilitate the creation of entrepreneurial opportunities for additional 12 women from the local Indigenous community.

Starting with research focused on traditional knowledge around the foodways of the Indigenous Munda and Oraon communities, this project, led by the Slow Food Ajam Emba Community, will explore the potential of nature-based products and contribute to reducing the knowledge gap between rural communities and urban stakeholders through training and local and national events.

The project uses community-led activities to preserve the fast-disappearing nature-based indigenous food traditions.

Fostering Partnerships to Promote Change

The project leverages the connections and expertise of existing partners.

One of the main partners is Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Producer Company ltd (APPCL). As one of the country’s first entirely Indigenous-owned companies, APPCL anchors the livelihoods of tribal communities by encouraging traditional organic food farming, handicrafts, livestock rearing, sustainable harvest of forest produce, conservation of natural resources, thereby securing the well-being of the landscape, value addition of harvests and trading.

The project also draws on the support of the Keystone Foundation: a long-standing partner of the Slow Food Coffee Coalition, and the Slow Food Ark of Taste (DA VERIFICARE), the world’s largest catalog of endangered food products. It also ties in with the work of other NGOs, including Greenpeace India which is campaigning to include millets in midday meals and the PDS.

So what does the future hold?

We talked to Jestin Pauls, the project manager and member of the Slow Food network, about his vision, moving forward.

“We’re launching this during the International Year of Millets, so the timing couldn’t be better. But this is a project for the long-term to build resilience in Indigenous food systems.”

“We expect the food festivals and events to attract key consumer stakeholder groups such as local chefs, and specialty store owners, creating sustained opportunities to put millets on the market. But the benefits won’t just be economic, they’ll be ecological too—through this project we can bring fallow lands back to tillage and increase the land usage.”

The food festival will bring these communities much-needed exposure and offer a springboard from which to exchange knowledge, form partnerships and grow, and the involvement of Slow Food can only spell success for the project’s future development.

But the project was only made possible thanks to the Slow Food Negroni Week Fund (DA VERIFICARE) which harnesses the power of food, drink and hospitality to promote sustainability, education, equity and diversity.

Driving Change through the Slow Food Negroni Week Fund

Since 2013, the fund has been supporting local community-led projects and magnifies networks that are transforming the global food and beverage systems.

The partnership envisions a world where everyone can enjoy food and beverage that is good for them, good for the people who grow it, and good for the planet.

Be the Change, Join Slow Food

Slow Food recognizes the importance of ensuring sustainability in our food systems and the role played by Indigenous communities as guardians of biodiversity. Our Indigenous Terra Madre Network is at the forefront of international projects promoting such communities, including through awareness-raising events like Decolonize Your Food. (DA VERIFICARE)

Has this project inspired you? Join our grassroots movement today.

Slow Food cultivates an international network of local chapters made of more than 1 million members and across 150 countries which host educational events, run advocacy campaigns, and build solidarity through partnerships.

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