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Reviving millets

By Aheli Moitra

5 October 2012

Celebrating the 'wonder grain' in Nagaland, and understanding the culture and conditions that sustain it
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Since the inception of the state of Nagaland in 1963, the Nagas have found themselves under strange governance. The government of Nagaland believes that jhum – ‘collective work’, the term for the shifting agriculture that the Nagas have practiced and developed from the time they settled in this hill territory – is bad for the environment, that the carbon emitted in burning patches of forests to enable food cultivation leads to irreversible ecological damage and the eventual depletion of forests, especially as population pressure means ever more forest is cleared. E H Lotha, Additional Director of the Directorate of Agriculture of Nagaland, has hinted that through the state government’s proud initiatives, as of 2012 jhum agriculture has fallen by 30% compared to 1963.

In the same period, poverty in Nagaland has risen more than in any other state in the country, according to the Planning Commission of India’s report in 2009-10. A territory that had survived for centuries without any state administration has become impoverished in the last five decades of governance. The reduction of jhum didn’t result in a proportionate rise in terraced cultivation, and this presents great problems for a predominantly agricultural community. Some Naga tribes like the Angami, proficient with terraced cultivation and sophisticated water-sharing mechanisms, have the resources to convert hills into productive, terraced paddy fields. The rest have to wait for government help to do so.
 
In the Rengma Naga village of Phenwhenyu, the government has built terraces, but this has given rise to strange inequities within the community: community land holding mechanisms, practiced effectively through jhum, have had to be converted to institutions of fixed, individual property holdings. People have started ignoring the communal sanctity of forests to log timber. Jhum cycles, under pressure now from both the governance and the population, have shortened from 15-20 years to 8-10 years, leaving the soil less time to recover and depleting agricultural yields as well as the forest. Under the new framework of ownership, land is now accessible only to those with access to cash. The rest, many of whom can earn cash only through national rural welfare schemes, have become the village poor.
 
Marginalised villages practice jhum on comparatively more land, and grow a wide diversity of crops – including maize, paddy, millets, pulses, vegetables and sesame – producing up to 60 varieties on a single field in a year. This system of agriculture keeps the villagers fed even when wage work is hard to come by.
 
Millet is one of the major crops produced through jhum, and the Nagas cultivate more than 11 varieties. Known for its resistance to drought, high nutrition value, long shelf life (some varieties can be stored for nearly 100 years while most can be stored for more than 30) and multiple uses (as food, fodder, and for brewing beer), millet is a great subsistence crop that also allows for bio-diverse agriculture. Terrace cultivation, on the other hand, is heavily dependent on rainfall and produces only rice, alongside some edible fish, snails and frogs. 
 
The North East Network (NEN) in Chizami in the Phek district of Nagaland has been working in conjunction with the Deccan Development Society to support the Millets Network of India, which upholds the rights of marginalised farmers (mostly women, even among the marginalised) and promotes food sovereignty through bio-diverse agriculture. To reverse the declining rate of millet cultivation, as well as the disappearance of millet culture, NEN Chizami organised a Millets Food Festival in August, inviting 120 women farmers who continue to grow millet from eleven villages in Nagaland.
 
As they exchanged millet seeds and songs, these women cooked competitively with women from other tribes that they had never encountered before. And, for the first time, they heard of a Millet husking machine that the NEN has installed at its resource centre at Chizami.
 
Millet is extremely hard to process, and consumption has fallen in part due to a strenuous traditional husking process that reaps only a small quantity of edible grain. The machine that NEN procured was developed by the Keystone Foundation, which has itself been working with indigenous communities and eco-development initiatives in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve since 1995. 
 
Severe climate change, which the indigenous communities of this region have contributed very little to, has already started affecting local paddy farmers who are heavily dependent on the rains. While developing the region’s agriculture, it is important that new initiatives do not force hunger and poverty upon communities whose existing practices allow them to be food sovereign. Often, as in the case of jhum and millet cultivation, this means working outside Indian government mechanisms.
 
~ Aheli Moitra is an independent researcher.
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