Climate change and millets: Odisha’s pick for progress


A greener revolution is taking shape in the heart of Odisha’s tribal farmland—thanks to the Odisha Millets Mission (OMM), launched in 2017 on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s watch. The revolutionaries in this crusade are farmers with sickles and shovels tilling their land to revive their traditional food crop as well protect the environment.

And now, what started as Odisha’s goal under the stewardship of Chief Minister Patnaik to create a singular policy to tackle climate change, preserve the environment through sustainable farming, improve livelihood of farmers, and promote economic growth and health of the population has become a success story for the rest of India—or, for that matter, the world—to emulate. In fact Odisha is the first state to realize that the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action when it comes to making agriculture and food systems climate-resilient.

Odisha Millet Mission has become the multi-pronged booster shot after it was launched by Odisha’s Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment as a five-year exploratory program in tribal areas to revive millets in farms and in people’s diet.

This program has in a short span yielded more than it has given, especially in terms of protecting the environment and fostering sustainable growth, which are together the main goals set by the United Nations to check climate change. Odisha Millet Mission’s phenomenal success has spurred the state government to extend the project to 142 blocks in 2022, setting aside more than 75,000 hectares for millet farming by around 1.5 lakh farmers.

This first-of-its-kind agricultural initiative to encourage the cultivation of nutrition-rich millets goes beyond bringing the traditional food of Odisha’s tribes back on plates. It answers one of the enduring questions: what can be done to protect and revive the environment as well as provide better income to farmers, particularly those with small farms?

Armed with the knowledge that the government is firmly behind them and committed to their cause, farmers who have long traded their traditional wisdom and crops like finger millets or ragi or Mandia in Odia—for mono-culture, water intensive crops like rice are shifting back to cultivating grains that their ancestors had grown. They are going back to the form of eco-friendly agriculture that has been their strong point for years.

For various and obvious reasons, the Odisha government chose to promote millet cultivation. One of the reasons being that millets integrate into the eco-system naturally. Millets are minor cereals of the grass family—a hardy, self-pollinating crop that grows well in extreme weather conditions and in diverse, small-scale, low-input farming systems compared to major crops like wheat and rice. And since it is a kind of grass with strong root systems, the crop helps reduce soil erosion in a state that sees heavy storms barreling down from the Bay of Bengal in the wet season.

Millets survive in less fertile soil, hilly terrains, little rain and high temperatures, and adjust to climate shocks. Mandia, for instance, grows well on red and shallow black soils, the kind found in Odisha’s Eastern Ghats.

When the world is struggling with the ravages of extreme weather like floods and droughts induced by climate change, it is imperative to ask at this point what is right to life without a clean, healthy environment to live in? We are part of this eco-system and any imbalance—man-made or natural—jeopardises our life as well as that of the generations to come. Which is why the Odisha government doubled the effort to maintain that balance and fix any gaps that may appear from unforeseen exigencies.

The impact has been great so far: Odisha has taken the lead in decarbonising the atmosphere through its Millets Mission. Millets are environment-friendly as they help cut atmospheric carbon dioxide and, thus, have a low carbon footprint. The millet farms are some of the firsts in the planet’s first lines of defense against climate change, absorbing man-made carbon emissions each year.

Millets were whittled down over the years to allow for mono-cropping and extensive use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that has degraded soil fertility and affected land biodiversity. But with the Millets Mission, sustainable farming through multi-cropping that generates healthy returns—like black and sorghum being grown together with millets to enhance greater sustainability—has become the in-thing.

Farmers are no longer dependent on rain-fed agriculture like growing paddy. Farmers have been encouraged to cultivate millets by synchronizing traditional agroecological wisdom with improved agronomic practices. Millets are hardy, resistant to drought, pests and diseases, and have a short growing season (2-3 months, as opposed to 4-5 months for paddy and wheat), and can be grown with minimal water throughout the year. Millets require little investment, thereby bringing more money by weight to the farmer than crops like rice, wheat and maize. Besides being packed with nutrition, millet grains have a longer storage life, some stay edible a dozen years from the time they were harvested.

The mission has been working in collaboration with local organizations such as women’s self-help groups, Center for Regional Education, Forest and Tourism Development Agency (CREFTDA) and Gram Swaraj. Quality grain is chosen and provided on the basis of local conditions, while farmers are encouraged to grow crops organically with organic manures like compost and livestock dung. All inputs are organic—seeds, manure, pesticide, insecticides. Locally available resources such as cow dung and urine, karanja leaves (Pongamiapinnata), arakha leaves (Calotropis gigantea), neem leaves (Azadirachtaindica) and jaggery are used to produce biological, eco-friendly fertilisers and pest-control solutions. This has substantially improved soil quality.

Multi-cropping has helped farmers resist the shocks of extreme weather events. If one crop fails due to pest attack or erratic rainfall, another survives. The bigger plants protect smaller ones from strong winds. It integrates crops, trees and livestock. Millet plants are used for fodder for livestock, which again cuts down the need to graze animals in large areas. This in turn cuts overgrazing, which contributes significantly to ecological degradation.

Watershed management is part of the mission, especially in hill slopes that suffer droughts from water run-offs in spite of rain. Since millets can grow in almost arid areas, this crop has turned on its head the old jungle saying: “Farmers have their feet on the ground, but their eyes on the sky.”

They don’t have to keep looking up for the rain. Millet farming has greatly reduced the need to build huge, high-cost irrigation infrastructure. The surface of arable land devoted to intensive agriculture with irrigation has increased in recent decades, but millet farming is taking over lately terrain once used for rain-fed crops.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the column are of the author.

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