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Millet deception?

The Uttarakhand government’s promotion of the cultivation and consumption of millets is welcome, says Biju Negi. What is not welcome is the simultaneous pushing of chemical fertilisers and micronutrients in this officially organic state

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -- George Santayana, American poet and writer

This is organic, officially organic Uttarakhand, but the state agriculture department is having ‘minikits’ of chemical fertilizers and micro-nutrients distributed free to its small farmers. Quietly, almost secretly.

The free minikits are part of the Initiative for Nutritional Security through Intensive Millets Promotion (INSIMP), starting the current kharif season, in the six districts of Pauri, Tehri, Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Almora. Although the initiative ostensibly seeks to increase production of and consumer demand for mandua (finger millet, locally called koda) and jhangora (barnyard millet), it will in effect lead to widespread degradation of the soil and water, and create inputs that hitherto have been minimal. It will also cause loss of traditional local seed diversity and productivity and erode people’s self-reliance in these food crops and their food security.

While the revival of millet is very welcome, what is not is the stress on chemical fertiliser and pesticides and hybrid seeds. Our government and its agriculture department do not seem to have learnt lessons from the Green Revolution, whose bitter outcomes are widely documented and which the INSIMP is closely patterned after.

INSIMP is an all-India programme introduced in 16 states and one union territory, under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, to promote four categories of millet -- jowar, bajra, mandua/koda and small millets like jhangora, kutki, etc. For 2011-2012, a sum of Rs 300 crore has been allocated for countrywide implementation. Essentially, the programme is being taken up actively in districts where these millets are grown over large areas (over 5,000 hectares for mandua and over 2,000 hectares for small millets) but where productivity is less than that of the national average yield.

In Uttarakhand, the initiative covers mandua inPauri and Almora,and jhangora in Almora, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Pauri, Tehri and Uttarkashi. In the case of mandua, the national average yield of 1,226 kg/ha (base year 2006-07) is only marginally higherthan average yields in Pauri (1,068 kg/ha) and Almora (1,200 kg/ha). But in the case of jhangora, against the national average of 475 kg/ha, Almora already yields 996 kg/ha, Chamoli 1,372 kg/ha, Rudraprayag 1,146 kg/ha, Pauri 1,072 kg/ha, Tehri 1,250 kg/ha and Uttarkashi 1,245 kg/ha.

Why then is INSIMP being introduced for jhangora in these districts when their averages are already two to three times higher than the national average? Farmers have been getting these averages without any government intervention and external market inputs whatsoever. It also means that communities growing jhangora in these districts (and definitely in other districts of Uttarakhand as well) are entirely self-reliant and that their practices are already exemplary.

In the case of mandua too, productivity is barely lower than the national average. And even this is largely due to urbanised social conditioning, influences and culinary preferences that have resulted in people opting for it less as their food, hence growing it less too. But a re-awakening, over the last decade, to the merits of mandua is already apparent and only needs to be given a little encouragement.

This raises suspicion that INSIMP is not so much about increasing nutritional security in Uttarakhand but more about pushing to introduce chemicals and hybrid seeds in an arena that has thus far remained untouched by them. It would appear as though the initiative is at the discreet behest of agro-chemical companies for whom the growing worldwide interest in millets means markets and unlimited profits, just as was in the Green Revolution years ago. These agro-chemical companies have been eyeing this arena in agriculture ever since interest in mandua was sparked overseas, particularly in Japan, some years ago.

As part of INSIMP, participating farmers will be provided free technology demonstration kits containing micronutrients, fungicide and bio-fertiliser, DAP, urea, potash, pesticides and weedicides. For example, for small millets like jhangora, each 1 hectare kit will contain micronutrients/zinc sulphate (12.5 kg), DAP (55 kg) and urea (55 kg) costing around Rs 2,000 per hectare. The per hectare cost of a mandua kit will be Rs 3,000. Total allocation for 2011-2012 in Uttarakhand is Rs 3 lakh for mandua and Rs 13.60 lakh for jhangora.

The Green Revolution, even in better times, was planned for and achieved whatever success it enjoyed in irrigated areas. But mandua and jhangora have always been grown in non-irrigated fields under rainfed conditions. Not just that, these millets are grown on the most marginalised soils and with very little, sometimes no external inputs. Chemicals have rarely, if at all, been applied in mandua-jhangora fields. Now, under INSIMP, application of chemical fertiliser and pesticides/weedicides on drylands where irrigation, or even water, is not readily available will inflict untold damage on the soil and upset its inherent natural equilibrium of micronutrients, hence its fertility. In fact, this is exactly what excessive use of chemical fertiliser did to almost all Green Revolution fields which have been rendered sorely deficient in organic matter. And this is exactly what will happen in the productive mandua-jhangora fields of Uttarakhand as well. Fields that have always yielded good harvests of mandua-jhangora are threatened with sterility.

INSIMP will also provide farmers with minikits of so-called “improved varieties/hybrids” of millet seed, with an incentive of Rs 3,000 per quintal for hybrid and Rs 1,000 per quintal for HYV (high-yielding varieties), of which 75% of the incentive will be passed on to the farmer and 25% to the seed-producing agency towards handling and processing charges. In Uttarakhand, about 3,370 qtl of seeds are proposed to be processed and distributed at a cost of Rs 34 lakh.

This is sacrilege. Farmers in Uttarakhand have been growing mandua and jhangora for generations, successfully maintaining high productivity. Over time, they have developed diverse, locally suitable and beneficial varieties. The small farmers’ movement Beej Bachao Andolan itself has 12 different varieties of mandua and eight varieties of jhangora in its collection -- all local varieties collected from different parts of Uttarakhand -- that farmers have been actively growing. Although in Tehri district jhangora seeds are not yet being provided as part of INSIMP, because the department does not have any, the state’s premier GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology has developed a jhangora variety at its research station in Majhera (Nainital district) that is being given to people as part of a demonstration, for over five years. However, the farmers’ response to this variety has been largely negative as it lacks the taste of local varieties and, more importantly, provides very little fodder, an important product of the crop.

The distribution of seed kits in INSIMP mirrors the strategy that was and is being followed in corporate Green Revolution agriculture whose long-term objectives remain the destruction of local seed varieties and holdings, and unlimited profits for the agro-chemical companies.

The observed and confirmed characteristics of so-called HYV company-bred-and-marketed seeds are that they are not resilient, do not regenerate, offer reduced yields over time, diminish fodder availability and, of course, are costly.

Will the hybrid and HYV mandua-jhangora seeds turn rainfed agriculture into one practised with irrigation? Will the new seeds guzzle as much water as their predecessor rice seeds? Will this not lead to more water being mined in an already water-scarce scenario? The government seems determined to bring this catastrophe upon its people in full consciousness of the facts!

We must not forget the experiences of the Green Revolution and subsequent market-prompted government programmes that offer free inputs to farmers in the beginning. INSIMP too is a time-bound programme. By the time it is over there will be nothing free for the farmers -- everything will have to be paid for and paid for dearly. And since by then their fields would have become addicted to chemical inputs, farmers will have no choice but to continue to use these inputs and pay ever-increasing amounts for them in the future.

When the agricultural fields of Uttarakhand become addicted to chemical fertiliser and pesticides and farmers are forced to use more and more of these just to maintain earlier production levels, small farmers will find the going extremely hard. Once farmers lose touch with their traditions, and their reservoir of seeds, and become totally dependent on market seeds that they will have to buy every year, they will find the financial burden unbearable. They will then seek an exit altogether from farming. Perhaps that is what the protagonists of agro-chemical agriculture are looking forward to: abandoned farmlands to capture land cheaply, to practise their own kind of agriculture, to mine, to scavenge, to build roads and dams, unmindful of the larger consequences for society. It might sound like a prophecy of doom but this is what the recent history of corporate-driven, market-dependent agriculture and development tells us.

(Biju Negi is a writer, sustainable agriculture consultant and member of Beej Bachao Andolan)

Infochange News & Features, July 2011