Tribals Unlocking The Magic of Millets!
We are all in a constant process of evolution, adaptation and betterment every day. And its multi-dimensional too. The fundamentals of it all lies in the process of learning and un-learning, and journeys takes us one step closer to it. We are multi-dimensionally exposed to different aspects of life and science in a journey. This is one such travel experience where, one is exposed to a different society and their admirable way of life, appreciable enough to be adopted.
On 4th of January 2021, I set out with two of my colleagues, Megha and Shinu, to explore the famous millet village of Attappady. Attappady is basically a tribal area where life is slow and nature is at its utmost beauty. Blessed with the hills and rivers, Attappady is definitely a tourist’s haven.
Though comprising an area of just 846 square kms, it is a treat to the eyes with its continuous array of mountain ranges, lush green vegetation, clean water and foggy weather. It is located in the southernmost state of India, popularly called as the “God’s own country”- Kerala. This protected forest zone lying between the Western Ghats and Nilgiri hills, constantly attracts settlers and tourists alike with its refreshing and pure air, fertile soil and scenic viewpoints. Tribal population occupies nearly half of the total inhabitants in the area. The area lies close to Tamil Nadu and hence shows significant Tamil population as well.
Apart from its scenic attraction, what urges one to enquire more into Attappady is the unique “Millet Village Project” happening there. Millets undoubtedly aren’t a top priority choice for consumption inside Kerala. It is exactly why curiosity hits different to peep into the millet cultivation performed in the area. Keralites since centuries now, had been using cereals as their staple crop. Rice, and wheat are mainly consumed in Kerala while wheat is the most commonly consumed cereal in the whole of India. Though millet have been incorporated into the dining tables in the households of Karnataka and some of the Northern states, it hasn’t made an entry to the Kerala kitchens and super markets in a great deal. Not only were people cultivating a less favourite section of crop, but they were doing it the organic way!
In such a context, why did Attappady chose Millets is the striking difference!
There had been an incident that urged them to stick with millet farming. Here is how, the story goes…
They were traditionally farmers, who did subsistence farming just to support their family. Originally, the tribesmen cultivated millets in their plots but around 1970s they started deviating from millet cultivation to other crops. Its after effect was shocking!
Headlines of newspapers burdened people’s hearts with the news of child mortality and maternity deaths. There were several cases of anaemia amongst the scheduled tribes reported in the 2013-14 timespan. After several sessions of brainstorming, meetings and studies conducted by the Department of Agriculture and the Department for Scheduled Tribes Development, Kerala Government in 2018 laid foundation for the prestigious “Millet Village Project”. Special efforts of Hon. Minister for Agriculture, Mr. V.S Sunil Kumar and Mr. Suresh Kumar, the then ADA, paved way for the genesis of the project. Mrs. Latha.R is the current ADA (Assistant Director of Agriculture), helping and guiding the farmers throughout their journey. Mr. Rejith T.K, was appointed as the special agricultural officer, exclusively for the project, to provide all kinds of technical assistance to the farmers.
Project is involving 70 hamlets of the Attappady block, covering an area of 2860ha. Of which, 1465 hectares were purely under the cultivation of millets while in the remaining area, vegetables and pulses were also cultivated. Within a period of two years, health conditions of the tribal mothers and infants improved significantly, which is a great success of the Millet Village project as well as the ultimate highlight of the nutritional benefits of millets.
Millets are mainly classified into two types- major and minor. Major millets include – Pearl millet, Sorghum, Finger millet, and Foxtail millet, while, minor millets include kodo, proso and little millets. They are coarse grains and a huge repository of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals (like iron, phosphorus and zinc). Millets are nutritionally superior to rice and wheat, because of its rich amino acid profile and crude fibre. Millets are rich in antioxidants as well and are a one stop solution against pellagra, anaemia, B- complex vitamin deficiencies and lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes.
Our journey begins here…
Millets are grown in three panchayats of Attappady block in Palakkad district, namely Agali, Shola oor and Puthoor. We travelled all the three panchayats and were assisted and guided by the ICS (Internal Control System) coordinators; Mrs. Jessy Roy, ICS coordinator of Agali gram panchayat, Mr. Palaniswami, ICS coordinator of Sholayur gram panchayat and Mrs. Bindhu Suresh for Puthur gram panchayat throughout the visit.
We visited different hamlets in there and the most interesting one was the: “Chemman oor” hamlet which is 10 hectares of farmland, in Agali panchayat. Before entering their plots, we were requested to remove our chappals and walk barefoot as it was part of their farming principle, to not step in, unless barefoot. It is a highly appreciable act of reverence showed by them to their farmland which is their ikigai for living; source of their bread and butter.
We interacted with two farmers named, Maari (belonging to Irula tribe) and Maruthi (belonging to Muduga tribe) who went on about their cultivation practices. They cultivated different millets named Sorghum, Pearl millet (commonly called as, pandi), Horsetail millet (commonly called, kuthiravaaly), Barnyard millet and Ragi. They also cultivated red gram, maize, tomato, horse gram, and spinach in their farms. These farms were lying near the banks of River Bhavani, which is one of the major rivers of Attappady. They carried out millet cultivation once a year starting from March every year and harvest around September-October. They reap around 500-1000 kg per harvest every season.
Maari, explained to us about their harvest ceremony which is deeply religious, and entwined in their culture and very existence for years now. Attappady is surrounded by hills on every side. The highest peak amongst of it all, is the Mallishwaram Mudi. Of the 192 hamlets in Attappady, 190 hamlets are settled facing the Mallishwaram Mudi, which according to their belief is the shrine of Lord Shiva.
Oor moopan, Mannukkaran, Vanddari, Kuru thala are the chieftains of each oor. Each oor has an oor moopan, who is the head of their oor. Mannukaran is in charge of their agricultural activities. He decides the time for sowing seeds and harvesting of crops. Sowing happens in a suitable tuesday morning as fixed by the Mannukkaran after discussing with the inhabitants of the oor in their meeting called “Naattukoottam”.
Every year, “Moopan” and few members from their tribe, accompanied with forest officers, climb up the mountain and cast light in the very peak, marking the beginning of their harvest festival- “Shivarathri”. It is after this ceremony that the tribesmen begin their harvest. They harvest their crop and throw a handful of their primary harvest towards the Mallishwaram Mudi as a homage to their deity who safeguards their life and crop.
They sow cowpea, tomato, and maize as second crop. But this cultivation can be done only once and that too before the flooding time of the adjacent river Bhavani every year. They call it the: “Panchkaad krishi”, meaning seasonal cultivation performed riverside. Flooding is a common phenomenon in those areas and the farmers adjust their cultivation practices accordingly. Their plots are visited by the Assistant Agriculture Officers, Agricultural Officers from Krishi Bhavan weekly for providing guidance and technical support.
Mr. Palaniswami, ICS Coordinator of “Shola oor” gram panchayat, explained to us about the modus operandi of the project.
For the first year, seeds for sowing are supplied to the farmers from Krishi Bhavan. Farmers sow them and raise their crops. Almost all the farmers maintain an integrated farming approach at Attappady, where in animals like cow, goat and hen were raised in their plot and its waste used as manure. The harvest left after household requirement are then procured by Krishi Bhavan at the rate of Rs.40/kg. For the next year, farmers sow seeds produced by themselves in their previous harvest and continue their farming practise. Proper weeding is done to prevent competition in the field and crops like Red gram, Tomato, Maize, Brinjal, and Spinach were sown as second crop following the recommended spacing rules.
Sumati, belonging to Irula tribe in Kunnamchala oor, was another farmer we visited. Most of the crops in her field had been harvested by the time we had arrived at her field. We saw a vast area under maize cultivation there, with male and female inflorescence in full bloom. Most of the farmers in Attappady had a large area under red gram/ pigeon pea cultivation and so did Sumati. Tasting fresh sorghum from the field we bid her adieu. The farmlands in Attappady were so scattered that, the travel time to visit the plots were too long.
Our final visit was to the farm area of the happy couple where Masanan and his wife, were very content about the harvest from their field and was super excited about getting a certified organic status for their farm soon. He was awarded as the “Best Farmer” in 2018 by the Department of Agriculture, Government of Kerala. The soil in his plot was very rich in humus and was deep black in colour. He testified about his success achieved solely using organic inputs and adoption of careful management measures. Tomatoes in his field were raised to a safe height using sticks and twigs so that the produce doesn’t touch soil avoiding blights and rots, showing the importance of effective cultural practices in avoiding disease infestations. He also grew chilly, brinjal, cabbage in his plot as second crop. He only used organic implements like cow dung, panchagavya, goat manure as source of farm supplements. The couple bid us a happy farewell and that was our last visit to individual fields of farmers.
In all the three panchayats, millet farming is being done by the Attappady tribesmen belonging to the three main tribes- Irular, Muduga and Kurumba. Out of the total 70,000 population in the region, 50% of them belong to Irula community.
40 hamlets of the total 192 hamlets in Attappady were selected for the organic cultivation of millets in the first phase which is currently in the third year of organic certification process. Another 30 hamlets were also selected for the second phase of the prestigious project. These hamlets were recognised as the best organic farms for both the years since 2018. Moolakomb oor, in Puth oor panchayat was first recognised as an organic hamlet followed by Kurukkuthikal oor of Puth oor panchayat. Both the hamlets were awarded as best organic farm by Honourable minister for Agriculture.
In the journey to make the Attappady region organic, potent and curious farmers were selected and INDOCERT conducted trainers’ training on organic certification with Internal Control System (ICS) for the agriculture department officials of Attappady. As per the Organic certification rules, it takes a period of three years for the plot to become organic. Every year the land under certification will be inspected by the organic inspectors from the certification body and if all the standard requirements are complied, the farm will be certified organic. It was the third year of the certification procedure and the farmers were excited to be upgraded into organic status by 2022. In the beginning of the project, around 1065 farmers came forward to adopt organic farming but eventually, due to non-compliance of some organic certification rules, a few were rejected by INDOCERT and the project currently has 926 farmers under the millet village project.
Switching to Millets is a welcome decision in this era of far reaching climatic changes and food insecurity. As per the latest reports on Global Hunger Index, India stands at 94th position amongst 107 countries. Due to sedentary lifestyle and fondness developed to junk foods, people at even their early 30’s are suffering from diabetes, heart, liver and kidney diseases. Immunity can’t be traded over anything in this testing times of Corona and let’s grow to be more health conscious individuals, disciplining ourselves towards a healthy choice of food and lifestyle. Let’s incorporate our diets with millets which are gluten free, fibre rich, repositories of life and energy. Millets are also available in value added forms like Ragi Puttu, Ragi flour, Ragi pappad despite as whole grains. Let’s focus on our health before it’s too late.
World is full of adventure, let’s not be knocked out due to our recklessness!!!!!!