Dalit women reap benefits of millet farming in India

Millet-based biodiverse methods provide food security and options for marginalized communities
Dalit women reap benefits of millet farming in India

A Dalit woman inspects a millet plant on a bio-diverse farm in southern India. Millet-based biodiverse farming offers rural communities in semiarid areas with better options than risky cash crops, say advocates. (Photo by D. Tejaswi)

A small-seeded millet grain is providing benefits to thousands of Dalit women farmers in the southern Indian state of Telengana.

Dalit women from 35 villages in the state's Medak district are reviving the cultivation of millet, a crop that is considered a staple food for indigenous communities in semi-arid areas of Asia and Africa.

With harvesting time approaching in Medak, some Dalit women have already celebrated what they call "crops of truth."

As part of that, around 5,000 Dalit women from the Deccan Development Society held a month long festival celebrating millet-based biodiverse farming.

"The festival honored the farmers who preserve biodiversity in their villages," said P.V. Satheesh, the society's director.

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"It is important for the community to look up to them," he added.

As part of the festival, the women encouraged villagers in surrounding areas to swap from pesticide dependent and environmentally unfriendly cash crops to instead plant climate-resilient crops.

Most cash crops also require a large capital input, which places farmers at greater financial risk.

Crop failure and unpaid debts last year resulted in the suicide of some 1,300 Indian farmers, with 130 of them being in Medak district. Satheesh said that there has not been a single suicide among those who follow ecologically sensitive millet farming methods.

The Rev. B. Winston, the ministerial secretary from the Church of South India in the Medak Diocese, said many poor farmers were duped by the false promises of commercial crops such as cotton.

"It must be accepted that the church has failed in convincing farmers about the ill effects of cash crops," says Winston.

Education, he says is the key to turning the situation around.


Watch this ucanews.com video on how Dalit women celebrate and tell others about millet-based biodiversity.



Food security

At a time when monocrop based farming practice dominates most of India's farmlands, biodiverse farming practices are allowing food security for marginalized groups such as the Dalits who were once considered "untouchables" in India's caste system.

Unlike many Indian cash crop farmers, who are heavily dependent on the government, the Dalit women's collective in Medak has managed to create a market for their produce by creating a village-level public distribution system.

For people such as the Dalits, millets are a valuable crop because of their drought resilience and nutritious qualities.

In Zaheerabad block of Medak district, the majority of farmers are Dalit Christians, according to Y. Ravi Kumar, a pastor at a Methodist Church in the district.

"Millets are the healthiest food and remain the favorite of farmers in the area," Kumar said.

"The government should promote the crop. Farmers will value them more only if the price of millets are raised from what they are today," he said.

More Dalits and small hold farmers are seeing the benefit of using a millet-based ecologically sensitive and bio diverse farming system. Instead of depending on a single crop, the system favors the planting of several varieties of grains, millets, pulses, oil seeds, greens and vegetables.

Sammamma, a 53-year-old Dalit farmer, used crops that needed pesticides until she realized that it was destroying her land and pushing her into poverty.

"Millet-based farming has given us security and good healthy food and has generally improved our lives," Sammamma said.

She now grows 20 crop varieties on her land that doesn't receive much in the way of rain. The only fertilizer she uses is manure and her land remains healthy.

"More than anything our millet-based system it has generally improved our lives," she said.


Dalit women pose in their biodiverse farm in the southern Indian state of Telengana. (Photo by D. Tejaswi)


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