Farm challenges

Will Karnataka’s millet superheroes actually encourage more farmers to grow the superfood cereals?

The state is pitching ragi and jowar to urban consumers as the new quinoa.

Last fortnight, Krishna Byre Gowda, agriculture minister of Karnataka, tweeted an illustration of two children wearing eye masks and capes – Millet Maga and Millet Magalu.

The two superhero children are mascots for a campaign to promote a national trade fair in millets and organic food, which ran in Bengaluru from April 27 to 29. The festival came complete with a hashtag, #LetsMillet, and tie-ups with large companies like Big Basket, the online grocery store. Promotional material in newspapers and on billboards on the days before the event strongly pushed the idea of millets, particularly ragi or finger millet, as the world’s new superfood, comparable with quinoa.

For years, particularly in the years after the Green Revolution in India, millets were dismissed as the food of the poor – as coarse grains that could not match up to rice or wheat. Now, that attitude is slowly shifting, and one part of that lies in a growing urban demand for organic and nutritious food and the state’s marketing campaign.

Karnataka is not just targeting urban consumers. It is also the only state to have included millets such as jowar and ragi in its Public Distribution System since July 2015 in accordance with recommendations in the National Food Security Act, 2013. Under this system, five kg of the 25 kg quota for cereals each month are millets, with jowar provided in the North of the state, and ragi in the South. In 2016, Karnataka procured around 20 lakh quintals of millets from its farmers.

All this is in line with the Karnataka government’s evident belief that millets are the market of the future. In a state where agriculture, particularly in the North, has suffered from four consecutive years of drought, pushing the price of millets up might be one way of turning around the fortunes of marginal farmers. It says one way of doing this is to convince urban consumers to buy in to the idea.

“Income is extremely high among urban areas and that is why food prices are also high,” said TN Prakash, chairman of the Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission, who has been the driving force behind the state’s millets campaign. It is exactly this that Karnataka hopes to leverage to drive the prices of millets up, which might, in turn, encourage more farmers to cultivate these cereals.

Prakash added: “Nowadays, urban customers believe that millets are nutritional, are good for diabetes and obesity. So in that sense, the market will take care of millets.”

A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).
A farmer works in his millet farm in Kanati village, near Ahmedabad. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).

Millets in welfare schemes

Millets – which comprise several species of small-seeded cereal grasses – are a staple crop of the dryland agriculture that characterises much of peninsular India. They are grown in the rain-fed areas of Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.

Farmers traditionally grew millets as part of an intercropping system, along with pulses and legumes, which helped them to balance their diet, said Dinesh Balam of WASSAN, a non-governmental organisation that works with communities to strengthen their natural resource management. Balam has been working with the governments of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in their attempts to integrate millets into government programmes.

But with declining profit margins and a lack of market interest, many farmers shifted away either to cash crops or to rice and wheat, which the state procured in huge quantities for its Public Distribution System.

Things began to change with the National Food Security Act, which recommends among other things that states should procure and store “coarse grains” and provide it in their Public Distribution Systems at the price of Re 1 per kg.

States such as Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have either started or are planning to start to integrate millets into various nutritional supplement welfare programmes such as midday meals or in the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme, which caters for take-home rations for children. Even these plans are only for a few districts. Apart from Karnataka, none has yet begun to procure millets, which is a massive proposition as it involves gathering enough of these grains to provide for an entire state.

Declining acreage

One reason the Karnataka government is pitching so strongly for millets for urban consumers is because in a field with rapidly decreasing margins, farmers simply do not see millets as a good enough investment.

Prakash said that 30,000 hectares of millets have been displaced in the last decade in Karnataka. “The area under ragi and jowar is getting replaced with other crops,” he said. “That’s one reason for this programme. If there are positive signals from urban areas, the acreage might increase again.”

The trend is replicated across the country, with declining interest in millets, even as productivity per hectare has increased marginally.

And as this article shows, the decline for certain millets has been particularly sharp.

If states are to include millets in their Public Distribution Systems – even if it is only as a supplement and not a replacement for wheat and rice – they should be able to grow enough in the first place.

“To provide five kg of ragi or jowar per month per family, we need to procure a minimum of 50 lakh quintals of ragi and jowar,” Prakash explained. “Last year, we managed to procure 20 lakh quintals of ragi, but not even one lakh quintal of jowar.”

The reason was the drought in North Karnataka, which is the traditional jowar growing region of the state.

According to Prakash, the yield of millets per acre is less than other cereals. “In one acre, you can get 30-40 quintals of paddy, whereas millets are only six quintals,” said Prakash. This is why millets, nutritious as they might be, can never replace rice and wheat in the Public Distribution System. “At a macro level, we need to feed the population. Providing people with organic food is secondary. In that sense, millets can only be a supplement and not a replacement of rice and wheat. You cannot eat millets alone.”

There is another problem in pitching for millets, Balam said, and that is in the eating habits of people dependent on the Public Distribution System for subsistence. “In 20 years in Andhra Pradesh [since the late 1980s], the diet completely changed,” said Balam. “People are now used to having rice instead of their traditional millets.”

A labourer piles millet in a field at Palaiya village near Ahmedabad in 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP).
A labourer piles millet in a field at Palaiya village near Ahmedabad in 2013. (Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP).

Note of caution

But are large-scale programmes the best solution to revive the cultivation of millets?

Odisha will begin to add millets to its Integrated Child Development Services scheme in eight blocks of two districts within the next two or three months. It also has a millets mission in seven districts and 30 blocks.

The key, according to Debjeet Sarangi, founder of Living Farms, a non-governmental organisation that has worked with Adivasis and forest communities in Odisha on issues of food security for 30 years, is to respect the local nature of millets.

“If we are talking of food security, we need to use the principle of local production, local storage and local consumption when dealing with millets,” said Sarangi. “Why should millets grown in Odisha go to Delhi? The challenge is that many actors who are intervening [from outside these communities] might not easily understand the nuances of the relationship between community life and millets.”

Sarangi cautions that instead of pushing millets into a centralised procurement scheme, it would be better to promote it in local government schemes instead, to ensure that millets do not go the quinoa way – where the people who grow the pseudocereal are reportedly no longer able to afford to buy it for their own consumption.

“Now that there is a push by urban consumers, I do have a few fears,” Sarangi said. “Markets do not demand all crops that are traditionally grown along with millets. Will the other crops then also disappear?”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.