Biodiversity and Food: The Millet Sisters

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They are a group of poor women, mostly from the underprivileged Dalit section. They belong to Medak District of Telangana State, where farmer suicides are commonly reported. But these women have not faced total crop failure even once during the 15 years that they have been working under the aegis of the Sangham Women Farmers’ Group.

Poor and disadvantaged as they are, the women, some of whom are Muslims, Gollas, Mangalis, Reddys and Sakalis, nevertheless have the privilege of being repositories of valuable traditional knowledge. Together, they have not only ensured that there is always enough to feed their families, but also that the wisdom and resources handed down from generation to generation over the years are preserved and passed on. They have also widened their horizons and taken up value addition so that the food they grow using sustainable practices is made available to the discerning public.

Facilitated by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO, the Sangham Women Farmers Group works towards conservation of agro-biodiversity. The women have not been lured by the perceived benefits of the hybrid mono-crop species cultures. Rather, they seek to conserve traditional species along with traditional practices. This has not only sustained them during harsh drought years but also given them food security.

Over 206 crops and animals form part of the diet of the community. The women not only recognize all the edible plants but can cultivate them and also use them as food and medicine. They realized that millets can be grown easily in the area and are an important source of nutrition. This led to the formation of the “Millet Sisters Network”.

The right mix

The key to traditional farming in the area is putting to use different types of land for growing diverse land races suited to climatic conditions during the two growing seasons (Rabi and Kharif) in a year. Each women farmer follows a unique cropping system. Based on the number of crops grown, they are high-diversity, medium-diversity or low-diversity farms.

During Kharif, 10 to 12 different crops are cultivated in a multi-staggered manner. Also known as Pannindu rakala bailu pantalu (12 varieties of rain-fed cropping), seeds of crops with varied growing periods are sown simultaneously in June. The mix is chosen on the basis of local knowledge and long-held traditions, to cater to each family’s specific food and fodder needs, and allows the farmers to continuously harvest crops that mature at different times till March. Thus, the risk of crop failure is minimized.

The women use green manure, and manure from the excreta of sheep, goat and cattle, bio-pesticides (leaf/seed extracts) and innovative methods of application and harvesting.

Further, they can identify local weeds which can supplement nutritional and health requirements, making the district an example of how a knowledgeable rural community can safeguard the rich repository of traditional wisdom about farming practices and land races.

Storing Success

Importantly, the Sangham Group has set up seed banks, both individual and collective. The women store seeds in their homes using traditional methods. For example, seeds of the moong bean are stored with pearl millet to protect them from pests, and some other seeds are mixed with cow dung ash and dried neem leaves or garlic cloves for the same reason. The seeds are kept in traditional clay pots or bamboo baskets sealed with cow dung mixed with ash. The stored seeds are made available to all farmers as per requirement. The women are firm that double the amount of seed taken from the bank has to be returned after harvest. This ensures sustainability.  The women also run a community seed bank. The seeds from this bank are used only if a crop failed in the previous season, or if seeds of a particular variety are not available in home seed banks. The community bank is designed using traditional know-how.

Money Matters

The DDS facilitated the Sangham and Millet Sisters Group initially, but the Sangham is now financially independent and has its own bank account. Swallows, Sweden, and Interpares, Canada have been supporting the Millet Network of India since 2009. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been giving the Sangham small amounts of money for outreach activities since 1990. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research, along with Krishi Vigyan Kendra (Farmers Training Institute) has been helping it since 1992.  The Sangham has mobilized government assistance to the tune of Rs.11,25,000/-through the DWCRA programme for various livelihood activities. Under the Community Gene Fund programme, 60 women in 30 villages manage around Rs.18 lakh. They directly administer the seed equivalent of this money. The women also control around 1000 hectares of common lands on which they have planted diverse tree species, amounting to the equivalent of around 10 million.

Tech Support

The Sangham women have set up a community radio which they operate themselves to provide information about weather and other farming issues every evening. Further, they have got their produce organically certified and are packaging it attractively to market in urban areas. A Sangham shop has been set up in Pastapur village and a mobile van visits Hyderabad once a week. They have innovatively used millet to make muffins, cakes, snacks and sweets. A Millet café in a nearby town serves as a marketing outlet for Sangham products, besides offering traditional delicacies like ragi and jowar dosas and idlis, millet pakoras, etc. The proceeds are equitably distributed among Sangham members, which has led to their financial empowerment.

Keeping it going

To ensure that their heritage is safe, each year the Sangham Women Farmers join the Biodiversity Yatra organized by DDS and participate in a Heritage Ceremony where mothers-in-law hand over traditional seeds to their daughters-in-law to be preserved for the future. The daughters of the family also contribute by spreading this heritage in their marital villages. Thus, what started in three villages has now spread to 75, and sustainability is assured.

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