Millennium Post

When millets are not free from chemicals

Millets, suddenly, are a focus area for the Union Ministry of Agriculture. Waking up to the nutritional benefits of these long-neglected cereals, Krishi Bhavan, the Delhi headquarters of the ministry, has in the past year been doing its best to help the small, marginal and tribal farmers who cultivate these hardy crops. But here lies the rub: its best is turning out to be a double-edged sword. By promoting the standard formula of modern farming techniques, traditional millet cultivation is being undermined and could jeopardise the future of its farmers, according to the millet lobby. 

The ministry’s Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millets Promotion [INSIMP] is a seemingly well-meaning scheme. With a Rs 300-crore outlay in 2011-2012, it covered 7,72,857 hectares [ha] [against a target of 6,71,300 ha] in 16 states and is demonstrating improved production and post-harvest techniques along with ways of adding value to the crops. Underpinning the programme is a cluster approach to ensure that the benefits of extension services reach the farmers in an integrated manner. So, compact areas have been chosen to maximise benefits: 1,000 ha per unit for sorghum [jowar] and pearl millet [bajra], 500 ha for finger millet [ragi] and 200 ha for small millets. The last consists of an assortment that comprises five other millets, from foxtail to barnyard, little, proso and kodo. 

These are highly variable and hardy, small-seeded cereal crops that have been traditionally used as foodgrain by farmers in the semi-arid regions of India where rainfall is minimal. According to official figures, they account for 47 per cent of the total coarse cereals grown in the country – this includes maize and barley – but just eight per cent of the total cereal production [rice and wheat]. INSIMP is a response to a nationwide campaign to bring millets back into the diet and in the public distribution system [PDS] by a federation of farmers, nutritionists and food activists known as the Millet Network of India [MINI]. The network is campaigning to end the steep slide in the area under millets which has declined from 38.83 million ha in 1949-1950 to about 18 million ha in 2010-2011. 

INSIMP was formulated at a brainstorming session held in November 2010 and the project was kicked off in kharif 2011 under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana [RKVY] which funds state projects. And states appear to have taken enthusiastically to the millet initiative. As a result, an additional Rs 175 crore has been allocated for the current year to cover an additional area of 7,23,000 ha. Clearly, Krishi Bhavan is not stinting funds for the millets programme. 

But controversy is also brewing. While INSIMP has some commendable features, it is also being viewed as a threat to the traditional cultivation of millets which has so far been free of chemicals – and dependence on the market for external inputs. But with farmers being weaned on chemical fertilisers and pesticides whose prices are galloping, there is justified concern that the millet initiative might led to indebtedness among the small and marginal farmers. The reason is the kit mentality of agriculture mandarins. Kits have become the hallmark of Krishi Bhavan schemes to increase production and productivity of all crops from maize to rice. Under INSIMP, states supply beneficiary farmers with free kits that include fertilisers, bio-fertilisers, micro-nutrients, seed treatment and plant protection chemicals worth up to Rs 3,000 per ha. In addition, there is an incentive of Rs 3,000 per quintal for hybrid seed production of pearl millet and Rs 1,000 per quintal [1 quintal=100 kg] for high-yielding varieties of other millets. The bulk [75 per cent] of this incentive goes to the farmer. 

All these are reasons for disquiet, says MINI convener P V Satheesh. Satheesh warns the ‘only safe, inexpensive and farmer-controlled system will turn into an expensive and externally controlled system.’

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine.
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