As she grew old, the late Mati Pertin, who passed away at 97, craved the food that she grew up eating. She missed anyat millet dearly. It used to be a staple during her youth, when she lived in Damro village in Upper Siang region of Arunachal Pradesh, said her granddaughter Dimum Pertin. Now, the traditional millet is being cultivated only by a handful of farmers.

Mati belonged to the indigenous Adi community in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. Considered one of the most populous tribes in the state, the Adi community is spread across the districts of Siang, East Siang, Upper Siang, West Siang, Lower Dibang Valley, Lohit and Namsai. Millet varieties such as Job’s tears or adlay (called anyat in Adi) and foxtail millet (locally called ayak), have been traditionally grown and consumed in the state.

As Dimum Pertin was desperately looking for anyat for her grandmother, she felt a need to preserve it. An entrepreneur and a development studies professional, Pertin had also done a course in agroecology. She started her own venture, Gepo Aali, which translates to “the seed of comfort” and works in collaboration with local and indigenous farmers to revive specific tastes and lost cultural practices around millets. “Children of the Adi community do not know what anyat is, since we grow so little these days,” Pertin said. She also plans to revive other traditional crops that have faded into oblivion similarly.

Around a year old, Gepo Aali specifically works on reviving the anyat millet which sells for Rs 210 per kilogram. During the pilot phase of the venture, Pertin did a study of around 200 families in Lower Dibang, East Siang and Upper Siang where 150 families showed interest in the millet, mostly out of nostalgia. “I sold around 75 kilos then,” Pertin shared.

Two women farmers at Sibuk village in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh pound millet using a traditional pounding tool. Credit: Sanskrita Bharadwaj/Mongabay.

India is the largest producer of millets in the world with the area under millet cultivation expanding from 12.29 million hectares in 2013-’14 to 15.48 million hectares in 2021-’22.

The United Nations designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets and cited the cereal’s potential to address climate change and eradicate food inequity and deficiency as some of the reasons behind the decision.

While ayak millet has the government’s attention and has been pushed into the mainstream, anyat continues to remain in obscurity. The Arunachal Pradesh state government too is pushing millets into the mainstream but anyat millet does not feature on the list of millet varieties the government wants to promote.

Conserving traditional knowledge

Tilek Rukbo has been farming for as long as she could remember. “Maybe when I was around seven or eight years old…,” the 33-year-old said. On a chilly November morning in Sibuk village of Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, Rukbo sat with a group of women farmers inside a musup, a traditional community hall built with wood and bamboo, raised slightly above the ground using stilts.

An Adi village of about 100 families, Sibuk is surrounded by lush green hills. Here, women and men contribute equally to farming with farmers mostly practising jhum and terrace form of paddy cultivation. Women farmers continue to cultivate these millets on small patches of land. Anyat is easy to grow and climate friendly because it requires less water, according to Bame Yonpang, an elderly Adi farmer from the village.

Rukbo grows black sesame, a few varieties of millets and maize. “We grow for ourselves, for our own consumption. There is no place here to sell them,” said Rukbo, who lives with her farmer husband and their six children.

The women are sceptical about anyat’s future as it continues to be neglected by the government. If efforts aren’t made to market and popularise the crop in the state, it might lose its relevance, they fear.

An anyat millet farm at Sibuk village in Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. While the state government is pushing millets into the mainstream, the traditional anyat millet remains neglected. Credit: Sanskrita Bharadwaj/Mongabay.

One of the techniques that Rukbo and other women farmers use to grow millet is by planting two varieties – anyat and ayak – together. “We also grow maize alongside,” she said. Anyat seeds are bigger than the others and are planted by digging holes on the farm using a stick. First, they sow ayak, then plant anyat. Sowing maize is the third and the last step. “We make sure that we put in less maize, and in the process, anyat ends up growing the most.” According to Rukbo, this technique utilises less space and helps them reduce weeds.

Many farmers here depend on jhum cultivation for millets, too. Jhum is the traditional slash and burn farming technique that is practised in parts of northeast India by the indigenous communities. It involves clearing a patch of land of trees and other vegetation by burning it, and then cultivating it for a set number of years.

Anyat millet with husk. Anyat millet is hand-pounded to remove the husk which is often fed to the pigs that the local people rear. Credit: Sanskrita Bharadwaj/Mongabay.

Meenal Tula, a postdoctoral fellow and a researcher working on millets and food sovereignty in indigenous communities in the eastern Himalayas, said jhum is a sustenance-based farming. In the northeast, millet is not the primary crop grown in the jhum fields. “They do it following the logic of what crops are best to be grown together and millets go well with other crops here. The beauty of jhum is its assurance of food security and food sovereignty of the indigenous farmers,” she said.

According to Dhrupad Choudhury, an expert in indigenous people’s food systems and shifting cultivation, who was formerly with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, jhum or shifting cultivation has been accused of contributing to deforestation, but it has its strength and that is diversity.”

This is a system where, in certain areas, there have been records of almost 60 different crops in a landscape. There is no other way you will get a diversity as high as that. You have inter-crop diversity and millet grows very well in this system,” he said.

Usually sown in June and harvested at the end of December, these varieties of millet are often used by the community to prepare apong – a fermented alcoholic beverage. They are also consumed as porridge and as a replacement for rice with steamed vegetables and dal. The husk is mostly fed to the pigs. Some farmers, Rukbo said, cultivate anyat millet primarily to feed pigs.

Better marketing, support

Most women farmers Mongabay India spoke to were unaware of marketing strategies, hoping for support from the government. Yonpang said, not many farmers grow it, except for a few like her who have an ancestral value attached to it. “My parents used to cultivate this millet, so I am trying to keep that tradition alive,” she said, adding that farmers might stop cultivating it eventually as everyone wanted some commercial benefit out of it. “If we get a good rate and are able to sell it, then maybe we can continue with it,” she said.

The husk of anyat millet is usually fed to the pigs. Anyat millet is consumed as porridge or as a replacement for rice and even brewed for apong, an alcoholic beverage. Photo by Sanskrita Bharadwaj/Mongabay.

While millet is considered a climate-resilient crop that is easy to grow, harvesting anyat millet is a challenge because it grows to about seven to eight feet tall. “The outer coating of this millet is very hard and farmers have to use their hands to process it. If with the coat, the millet is around 100 kilos, you will get 50-40 kilos once the husk is removed,” Pertin said.

Oing Borang is one of the few farmers in Dambuk who has been cultivating anyat for a long time now. She started going to the farm along with her father as a six-year-old and learned the ropes from him. “This year I cultivated a little bit of anyat, it’s growing well,” said Borang, who lives with her son in Dambuk.

Borang said that people in the hills cultivate more of anyat than those in the valley and riverbed areas such as Dambuk. While anyat is less labour intensive than others, it isn’t profitable. Borang said she loved anyat for its taste but rued that the younger generation preferred rice over millet.

According to Choudhury, as rice and wheat became widely popular, the dietary habits of people also changed with traditional recipes with millets being pushed to obscurity. He added that people are slowly realising the potential of coarse grains such as millet to deal with nutritional insecurities.

With Gepo Aali’s intervention, around 50 women farmers grew anyat millet this year in the Dambuk-Bomjir region. “Anyat is indigenous to India, while most rice substitutes, such as quinoa, are not. With high micronutrients and dietary fibre, the product is similar to rice in terms of cooking and taste. It also has a low GI index, which makes it a good option for people suffering from diabetes,” Pertin said.

She added that if anyat is marketed as a substitute to rice especially for diabetic patients and those who are health conscious, it could see a revival in parts of Arunachal Pradesh. “The substitute for rice has been brown rice or quinoa, but if you have something more nutritious than those two, then why not?”

This article was first published on Mongabay.