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Ragi over rice

By Ananda Siddhartha

As in the rest of India, in Pavagada taluka of Karnataka, ragi is losing out to rice, groundnut and other cash crops. Until 15 years ago, it was the reverse. What are the market and policy pressures that have caused this reversal, and what are its consequences on health and nutrition, productivity and drought-proofing?

Ragi growing in H D Kote taluka

N L Ravi Kumar is among the few farmers still growing ragi. Most have shifted to cultivation of groundnut and other cash crops

As early as the 16th century, Kanakadasa, one of Karnataka’s great philosophers and poets, wrote about the advantages of ragi over rice. In Ramadhanyacharitre, he recounts an argument between rice and ragi (a millet). Neither of the grains could prove their superiority, so they asked Lord Rama to decide. He sent them both to jail for six months. After a couple of months, the rice began to rot but the hardy ragi grain survived and earned Rama’s blessings. Not only is this a story about the longevity of ragi, it is a social message indicating that the weaker castes might not be as weak as they appear to be.

Chandan Gowda, associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, says that the dark colour of ragi is said to be the main reason for its low status. Ragi mudde has long been the staple food of the poor, especially in the drier regions of south Karnataka which did not get irrigation until the early-20th century. Ragi is not cooked for guests at social occasions like weddings and festivals. The superiority of rice is, in a way, an ex­tension of the caste system.

Textbook controversies
Ragi growing in H D Kote taluka

It is a little before 11 am but the sun seems to be at its peak already. N L Ravi Kumar stoops over his Ka­nakambaram (Crossandra) flowering plants, pulling out weeds. The plants were watered just an hour ago but the ground shows no sign of this. Kanakambaram is just one of the crops that Kumar grows, the others being ragi, groundnut and paddy. Pointing to his father, who is tending sheep under a jackfruit tree, Kumar explains that in his time he devoted the entire 2.5 acres of their land to ragi and other millets and vegetables. When the son took over, however, the market forced him to adapt. Today, there is little demand for ragi in the open market. Furthermore, the price it fetches is too little to sustain a family. Kumar now cultivates ragi only on half an acre; the rest is devoted to groundnut, paddy and flowers.

Ragi has been cultivated in India, and especially in the south Indian state of Kar­nataka, for thousands of years. However, over the last three decades, this crop has been in decline. In Pavagada taluka, near the border with Andhra Pradesh, there has been a major shift from the cultivation of ragi and other traditional crops to cash crops like groundnut, sunflower, tamarind, coconut, mango, areca nut (beetle nut) and honge (pongamia). Today, only about 600-800 hectares of ragi are grown in the taluka whereas rice covers 3,000 hectares. “It used to be the other way around 10 or 15 years ago,” says Pannegendra Gupta, technical officer in the agricultural department, Pavagada.

The low price of ragi in the market has forced farmers to shift to cash crop cultivation. “In the past, the ratio of cash crops to food crops used to be very low. What has been happening is that cash crops have taken centrestage and food crops have decreased tremendously. The trend is towards growing cash crops rather than ensuring your own food security,” says Vatturi Srinivas, a senior member of the Deccan Development Society and na­tional coordinator of the Millet Network of India. This has been compounded by the fact that the government provides subsidies for cash crop cultivation but none for food crops.

“There is no support at all from the government. The only support that they give occasionally is for groundnut, but nothing for the cultivation of ragi. Ag­riculture is not easy for farmers in this region,” says Kumar. The cost of seeds needed per acre of groundnut cultivation is Rs 2,500. The government gives a 50% subsidy for this.

P R Seshagiri Rao, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, agrees there has been a shift to groundnut cul­tivation. “Now you will not find 5 acres of any other crop (but groundnut) in this area.” He also maintains that food crops have taken a back seat as economic security has become more important than food se­curity. “This region alone gets about Rs 50 crore (500 million) as subsidy for groundnut cultivation. Without this subsidy, farmers would not have been able to grow groundnut,” he adds with a hint of cynicism.

Shifting to cash crops has brought an­other problem in its wake: decrease in land productivity. According to Rao, al­though pastures have also been brought under the plough after the 2003 drought, the productivity per acre has actually gone down due to an increase in chemi­cal fertilisers. Land productivity has decreased “pos­sibly as much as 75% compared to about seven or eight years ago,” Rao says. “So has the water-holding capacity and amount of nutrients in the soil.”

Coupled with this problem is rural-urban migration from the region which could possibly spell disaster for agricul­ture. Over the past decade, a sizeable chunk of the population has migrated to Tumkur, Anantapur and Bangalore. Although exact figures are not available, Rao estimates that as much as 75% of the population may have migrated to Bangalore alone after the 2003 drought.

Kumar admits that his village has been facing the same problem. “Both boys and girls are going to the bigger cit­ies, especially those who are educated. The girls get married off early. The men don’t want to stay here and do agriculture. They see no future in it. Only the poorest of the poor are forced to stay back. This has made it hard for the existing farmers to find coolies.” Kumar gets a maximum of 3 quintals (300 kg) of ragi from the half-acre. His father used to get about 8 quintals per acre. Unlike his father, Ku­mar does not practise mixed cropping, which involves growing millets along with pulses and other crops such as horse gram, castor and green gram.

Millets continue to be grown in the area although the acreage has declined drastically. Apart from ragi there are a number of other millets grown here: kodos millet, common millet, Italian mil­let, little millet, sawa millet and pearl mil­let. These millets were widespread in the past; today only a few farmers spread across the taluka cultivate them.

Ragi shares the same fate as the other millets. There used to be around 10 varieties, but in the last 10-15 years varieties like konnanakumbina ragi, kari ragi and butta ragi have disappeared, says Rao. With the commercialisation of agricul­ture and development of cash crops, crop diversity has suffered. “In the past, in some areas, farmers planted as many as 50 different varieties of crops on 1 acre of land. These yield­ed at different periods so there was a con­stant supply. They also adapted to the en­vironment. If it rained, some crops would come up; if it didn’t, other crops would flourish,” says Srinivas nostalgically.

Rao insists that newer crops such as marigold and soyabean, which have been introduced in the last 10 years, have added to crop diversity but agri­cultural biodiversity as a whole has diminished. “Agricultural biodiversity, the stock of varieties planted for about 2,000 years, has been eroded substantially. This is a permanent loss. Once you lose it, you lose it forever,” he says. “Traditionally, the wild greens gathered from the fields were used as food. However, these greens go well only with ragi balls and not rice. The shift to rice has ruined these traditional culinary com­binations. These wild greens are no longer popular. Now farmers are compelled to buy vegetables from the market which increases the financial burden on them,” Rao explains.

Growing ragi is beneficial because it also provided fodder for the cows. Approxi­mately 2 tonnes of valuable fodder is produced on 1 acre of land. “Ragi is grown as much for the sake of fodder as it is for the grain,” says Rao.

Near Kumar’s house, the pungent smell of cowdung wafts through the air. His two bulls, busy chewing on fodder, are probably his most prized assets. His cattle are a boon not only because they pro­vide him with cowdung throughout the year but also because they are used to till the land. Other farmers who cannot afford to hire a tractor and do not have cattle find it extremely difficult to get by. “Farmers who do not own bulls have to wait for their neighbours to finish ploughing. Sometimes, this delay is bad for them because sowing at the right time is important,” says Kumar.

The air inside Kumar’s house is filled with the smell of boiling ragi. His wife, Rathnamma, is busy preparing a sambar to go along with the ragi. Kumar claims that in the entire taluka, only 10% of people eat ragi; the rest eat rice. “You have to eat mudde (ragi balls) with green gram curry. It’s generally not eaten with rice. These days, people eat whatever they feel like. They do not stick to tradition. I have two girls at home. If we make mudde at home they don’t eat. They want rice. They like rice better. I have grown up eating ragi. I know the benefits. That is why children have to be brought up on ragi. The same applies to our crops, which have to be fed gobra (cowdung) instead of chemical fertilisers,” he says setting down plates for the meal.

Not only has there been a switch from ragi to rice, fewer dishes today are made from ragi. Farmers in the region make only ragi mudde and ragi chapatti. In the past there were at least six dishes where ragi was the main ingredient.

As we sit down to eat, Kumar apolo­gises for not serving rice. “If you eat ragi balls you can work for two to three hours non-stop. However, with rice, after an hour you get tired and have to rest. People have got too used to eating polished rice in this area. Rice does not have any nutritional content, yet people eat it,” Kumar says shaking his head.

Getting adequate nutrition has been a longstanding problem in the taluka. With over 80% of the popula­tion living below the poverty line, most depend on the public distribution system (PDS) for rice and wheat. Earlier, in Bangalore, Srinivas had said: “Rice given through the PDS is both polished and of inferior quality and is therefore less nutritious.” This has been detrimental to the health of the population in all dryland areas, in­cluding Pavagada taluka. “I have seen an increase in the number of malnutrition cases in the taluka,” says K G Jagadish, general practitioner at the Y N Hosakote primary health centre. “Cases of cholesterol, diabetes and (high) blood pressure were rare earlier. Anaemia and problems during pregnancy among women and young girls have also been on the rise in the recent past,” he adds. “This is mainly due to the intake of rice and wheat that is distributed through the PDS.”

Textbook controversies
Post-2004, cultivation of groundnut has spread across the taluka. The government provides large subsidies for the crop

Lack of awareness about the nutri­tious qualities of ragi does not seem to be the problem. “People are aware. They know ragi is better. We don’t need to teach them. They will tell you. Yet they continue to buy rice because it is much cheaper,” Seshagiri Rao had told me earlier. “Why do you buy a Chinese phone?” He laughs out loud. “I don’t need to tell you that it is bad. You make an economic choice. You know the flaws. Yet you buy it.” Rice from the PDS is cheap­er than ragi from the open market.

This economic choice has affected people’s health. “Disabilities have increased because of the lower nutritional levels. The PDS is the one to blame,” says Suren­dra Kumar who is a community-based rehabilitation supervisor at Narendra Foundation, an NGO that works with dis­abled people in the taluka. “This generation does not care about nutritional levels. In the past, people had ragi for at least one meal a day. This was usually in the morning before going to work in the fields. In the evening, they ate rice. Today, people are preoccupied with food that tastes good,” he adds.

Over the years, the PDS has undermined the importance placed by the local community on the cultivation of ragi and other millets. Where farmers earlier depended on their own production for foodgrain, they can now get subsidised rice and wheat through the PDS. “In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka this is a very serious problem. Because of the PDS and its cheap supply of rice and wheat a lot of land is being left fallow. Even poor farmers do not feel the need to cultivate their lands since they can buy cheap grain so easily,” says Srinivas. Rice and wheat are the only foodgrain distributed through the PDS.

Srinivas and his colleagues at MINI (Millet Network of India) believe that there is an urgent need to revive ragi and other millets, and for ragi to be introduced in the PDS. With the Food Security Bill on the anvil, members of MINI sent a letter to policymakers highlighting issues that they felt needed reconsideration before the bill is introduced in Parliament.

Some of their demands were:

• Including millets in the PDS.
• Giving priority to locally produced grains, particularly millets.
• Providing financial and technical support to millet farmers.
• Emphasising organic farming in or­der to sustain the diversity and nutrition content of agriculture, and soil improve­ment.
• Establishing direct links between markets and farmers which could lead to the elimination of middlemen.
• Developing proper storage facilities to ensure that farmers do not have to sell their grain and then depend on the mar­ket for their needs. If the government es­tablishes storage systems at the local level, this problem could be resolved.
• Serving millet-based food in gov­ernment hostels, schools and anganwa­dis (government-sponsored childcare centres) to ensure quality nutrition to children.

“We spoke to Sharad Pawar and Abhi­jit Sen from the Planning Commission and they said procurement of millets for civil supplies has not been done because the quality of storage is not good. There is a huge amount of politics behind this be­cause of the rice and wheat lobby,” says Srinivas.

P Sainath, veteran journalist and rural affairs editor at The Hindu, believes otherwise. He maintains that al­though the “revival and expansion of mil­let cultivation is very important,” it does not only boil down to politics. “There is no conspiracy behind the destruction of millet. It was a logical, if perverse, outcome of the direction we took in agriculture which has had the ef­fect of dramatically reducing diversity in food crops, apart from a million other things… If policy dictates that only wheat and rice will get assistance or subsidies, then they’ll (farmers) feel compelled to grow that,” he explains.

Srinivas told me that a couple of years ago that the government in Maharashtra pro­cured sorghum under the civil supplies to test the response. Alleging that nobody was buying it, they later sold it to the feed industry. “Nobody is going to buy sor­ghum or any other millet because of the higher status that rice has,” he said. The same has been the case in Pavaga­da. A couple of years ago, ragi was offered for a very short period. “They gave kari ragi (black ragi). But times have started changing now,” says Kumar. They want the ragi to be pure and white. We are supposed to work on our fields without getting dirty. Even the cof­fee that used to be had plain in the past, without milk, has to be ‘white’ now. Peo­ple now demand that the coffee should have sugar and be white.” It’s intriguing how colour preju­dice is not confined to human beings but also applies to foodgrain!

Rice, wheat, sugar, oil and kero­sene are supplied through the PDS, but not in the right quantities. Most often, each family does not get the allotted 20 kg of rice in Pavagada. “There is a lot of corruption in terms of price and quantity given. We are sup­posed to get rice at Rs 3 per kg but they charge us Rs 3.25. Even this small amount of money that we have to pay extra affects us in the current scenario, where onions are Rs 60 per kg, garlic Rs 120 per kg and tomatoes Rs 40 per kg. They should start giving these essential vegetables also as part of the PDS. How are we to survive in these conditions,” asks Kumar.

Like other farmers in the taluka, Kumar insists that ragi be offered through the PDS. That would ensure that people get ragi throughout the year and not just for six months as is the case now. “Government  should give ragi instead of wheat. It will be good for everybody. It will ensure that our children grow up healthy. It should be part of the midday meal programme also. Besides, ragi has a cooling effect on the body; it does not generate heat,” Kumar says.

H Srinivas, food inspector for Pavagada taluka, confirms that neither ragi nor any other millet is being served at government hos­tels or anganwadis. The direction that the state is taking in terms of adding stor­age facilities highlights the relatively low importance the state affords to ragi. A Pre-Feasibility Study for (Storage and Distribution) Logistics Architecture in Karnataka was conducted by the Infra­structure Development Corporation (Karnataka) Limited. The study found that only paddy, maize and cotton were identi­fied as commodities for storage. The fa­cilities have an estimated capacity of 300,000 metric tonnes. The study did not deem it necessary to look at storage issues related to ragi.

A two-day Siridhaanya Mela (mil­let mela) held in Bangalore in February this year appealed for the promotion of millet in the state. It is yet to be seen how far they succeed in getting their goals realised. With 20,450 PDS shops and 12 million eligible ration card holders in Karnataka, “introducing millets may just herald a new direction in the state and country’s quest for food security and food sover­eignty, both of which have increasingly risen in importance,” says P V Satheesh, director of Deccan Development Society. According to an estimate of the Kar­nataka Bio Fuel Task Force, the state has about 13.5 lakh hectares of degraded and fallow land. “This could be used to culti­vate ragi and other millets and ensure that the state is food secure,” Satheesh adds. “Government statistics show that there are about 25 million hectares of fallow lands across India. If farmers are given incen­tives to grow millets on these lands you will get a minimum of 25 million tonnes of food,” says Srinivas.

In the context of global warming and changing rainfall patterns, millets also have the potential to combat poverty and hunger and ease the climate crisis. Their capacity to grow in poor soil with no irrigation and under low rainfall conditions has added to the belief that millets are the crops of the future. Rice and wheat, two of the highest produced foodgrains in India, come under the C3 group of crops. These absorb less carbon and are water-intensive. Millets, on the other hand, are C4 crops; they have a higher carbon intake and use water more efficiently. They can also serve as carbon sinks by absorbing more carbon di­oxide from the atmosphere. “Instead of taking natural advan­tage of millets, scientists are trying to con­vert rice and wheat into C4 crops through genetic modification,” Srinivas says with a cynical smile.

He told me that in some areas farmers have studied the vagaries in temperature and have recognised that their tra­ditional stocks of seeds have helped them ‘adapt’. These farmers have got about 75% of the output they normally produced despite adverse changes in the weather. “We don’t need to invest time and money in genetic modification of plants to adapt to different climatic patterns. We already have crops that grow in these con­ditions. We need to revive these traditional crops. The natural abilities of crops are go­ing to become very important in the future. Monocropping is not the future. Diversity is all-important,” says Srinivas.

As the sun sinks into the barren land­scape, Kumar says he may have to give up even the little ragi that he is now growing. It has become financially unviable. “Even I may give in to growing flow­ers and making more money,” he says. His elderly father is not going to like that.

(Ananda Siddhartha is a journalism student)

Infochange News & Features, August 2012