Nestled in the remote forested hills of Odisha’s Malkangiri district, Bondaghati is home to the Bonda tribe, one of the 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups in the state. Some 12,321 Bonda people lived in 32 hilltop villages, as per the 2011 Census. Malkangiri is among the 100 most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken districts of India.

The Bonda people belong to the Austro-Asiatic ethnic group and are believed to be a part of the first wave of migration out of Africa, 60,000 years ago. Their lives are interwoven with the forest land they inhabit, for generations the tribe has sustained itself by cultivating traditional crops, collecting minor forest produce and brewing indigenous liquor.

But in the past few years, climate change has irrevocably affected their subsistence living. Heavy rainfall (table below) washes away the fertile topsoil from the slopes. The advent of modern ways of agriculture has influenced their traditional farming practices – from millet-centred mixed cropping systems, the Bonda farmers have gradually shifted to paddy, which has affected the availability of their staple food.

Bonda women, however, are addressing these issues by reverting to the cultivation of native millet varieties – finger (ragi), foxtail (kakum or kangni), barnyard (sanwa), proso (chena) and pearl (bajra) millets – which are climate-resilient and ensure the community’s food and nutritional security.

The awareness created by Bonda youth volunteers and local non-governmental organisations about cultivating millets through improved farming techniques to meet nutritional and climatic challenges, and the institutional impetus given by the Odisha Millets Mission – such as assured purchase and higher prices – is steadily yielding results.

Odisha has recorded a 215% increase in gross value of millet produced per farmer household from Rs 3,957 in 2016-’17 to Rs 12,486 in 2018-’19, according to a 2020 NITI Aayog study. In the same period, the area under millet cultivation has increased from 2,949 hectares to 5,182 hectares and the yield rate has increased by 120%, the study showed.

Changing climate

“We used to produce most of our food on our land,” said Budhbari Mandra, 48, from Baunsapada village of southern Odisha’s Malkangiri district. “But things have changed over the years. Heavy rainfall often destroys our crops. Farming has become less viable.”

Sukruni Kirsani, 33, said, “Last year, flash floods destroyed our paddy. Heavy rains carried away the fertile top layer of soil.”

“As we started applying chemical inputs with a hope to boost crop yield, our lands have become less fertile,” Kirsani said. “And hybrid seeds often failed to withstand the weather extremities.”

This reflects the situation of hundreds of other Bonda farmers who have been struggling in the face of rising temperature, heavy rainfalls, flash floods and landslides.

“Young Bondas have started migrating to cities for better opportunities,” said Fredrick Stephen, director of Koraput-based Asha Kiran Society, an NGO working on holistic development of the Bonda community for over 20 years.

While Odisha’s average annual rainfall is 1,451.2 mm, Malkangiri’s is higher at 1,667.6 mm. But flash floods and landslides often destroy mono-crops. With the promotion of traditional millet farming, surface soil conservation has improved, and there is less erosion and siltation on the Bonda hills, Aniket Likhar, district coordinator, Watershed Support Services and Activities Network, explained. This not only helps the farmers but also protects the agricultural lands of other communities dwelling on the valley bottom of Bonda hills.

Traditional wisdom

In Dantipada village, over 70 km from Malkangiri, across the slopes of Bondaghati, a Bonda woman and her daughter tend their crop on a small patch of land.

“Millets are our staple food,” Sanjita Mandra, 20, said while pointing out different varieties of millets such as the finger, proso, barnyard, pearl and foxtail. She is studying in Class 12 at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences in Bhubaneswar and never misses an opportunity to help her mother in farm activities during holidays.

“The taste of each millet is different, but all of them give us nutrition and strength,” said Sanjita, excited to share traditional recipes of millets. “Finger millet is pounded into powder. We boil this in water to make a rich porridge. You can add a small amount of rice and corn to make the porridge thick.” Similarly, proso and barnyard millets are eaten like rice. Foxtail millet, on the other hand, is a bit hardy and soaked overnight, she said.

“Since the time of our forefathers, dangar chas has been feeding our people,” said Raibari Mandra, 44, Sanjita’s mother. This is the Bonda community’s unique and eco-friendly method of farming in the highlands. “We start preparing the land during summer.”

“Shrubs and bushes are cleared and weeds are burned,” she explained. “We never cut fruit trees and medicinal plants. After the first spell of monsoon rains, we start the cultivation in May. We sow paddy, millets, pulses and tubers. We protect the crops from wild animals. Harvesting starts between November and January.”

Raibari Mandra in Dantipada village in southern Odisha’s Malkangiri district. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty/ IndiaSpend

When asked about the attack of pests and insects on crops, she said that they do not use any chemicals but allow birds, insects and snakes to prey upon other insects and pests. “This is a natural way of protecting our crops. They [living organisms] are a part of mother nature.”

“Last year, we harvested about 100 kg finger millets, 60 kg barnyard millets, 45 kg pearl millets, 70 kg sweet potatoes and 40 bags of elephant yams,” Raibari said. “We earned around Rs 8,000 by selling a part of this [summer season] harvest at the local weekly market. With this money, we bought a pair of goats and purchased a few household utensils.” The Bonda farmers have two harvest seasons, summer and rainy.

“These women farmers are reaping diverse benefits from their indigenous climate-smart crops,” said Dinesh Balam, member of the drafting committee for Odisha Organic Policy 2018, who also coordinates several agro-ecological initiatives in the state, including the Odisha Millets Mission and Integrated Farming Programme For Rainfed Areas. The organic farming policy was introduced to make agriculture climate-resilient, reduce farmers’ risks and enhance their income. “Their [Bondas’] farming practice has evolved in sync with nature; climate resilience [is] deeply interwoven with their ecosystem.”

Millets vs cereals

Millets not only ensure the Bondas’ food and nutritional security but also preserve biodiversity, said Ramya Ranjan Parida, district coordinator for the social welfare and inclusive education programme at Kalinga Institute of Social Science, Malkangiri, who has worked with the community for over a decade.

Millets require 60% less water than paddy and can be harvested within 70 days-100 days as against 120 days-150 days for paddy or wheat. They are also resilient to drought, salinity, extreme heat as well as pests and diseases, he said, adding that they can be cultivated on this region’s undulating terrain.

“The rich multi-nutrient composition of millets, when not included in the diet, can result in nutrition deficiency among the Adivasi community,” said Rajesh Pattanayak, district project officer, Public Health Resource Society, a Malkangiri-based NGO promoting food security and access to better healthcare services among the Bonda and other Adivasi communities.

In 2015-’16, every second child under the age of five in Malkangiri was underweight, according to the fourth National Family Health Survey. The district also ranked third in the country among 100 districts having the highest prevalence of malnutrition among children under the age of five.

Odisha’s infant mortality rate (the number of deaths per 1,000 live births of children under one year of age) is 41, whereas Malkangiri’s is 50 – far higher than India’s infant mortality rate of 32, revealed a Right to Information report sought by Pradeep Pradhan, a Bhubaneswar-based activist, in 2020.

Bonda children at Dantipada village in southern Odisha’s Malkangiri district. In 2015-’16, every second child under the age of five in Malkangiri was underweight. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty/ IndiaSpend

Odisha Millet Mission

In 2017, Odisha’s Department of Agriculture and Farmers Empowerment launched a five years’ flagship programme in Adivasi areas to promote households’ consumption of millets, improve the productivity of millet crops, ensure minimum support price for farmers, set up decentralised processing facilities and include millets in the state nutrition programme and the public distribution system. The model was launched in seven districts and subsequently scaled up to 14.

The impact is visible: Odisha has seen, as we said, a 215% increase in gross value of millet produced per farmer household between 2017-’18 and 2018-’19 and a 120% increase in yield rate between 2016-’17 and 2017-’18, according to a NITI Aayog study.

The millet mission has strengthened minimum support price and assured government procurement for Public Distribution System and Integrated Child Development Service to encourage the cultivation of millets.

During 2020-’21, the state government has increased the Odisha Millet Mission funding from Rs 65.54 crore to Rs 536.98 crore, of which Rs 223.92 crore is for project implementation and Rs 313.06 crore is for procurement and distribution of ragi in the Public Distribution System and Integrated Child Development Service.

“Under the state nutrition programme, [each] ration card holder received 2 kg of ragi reaching out to five million beneficiaries for one month in 14 districts as a substitute of rice from the quantity procured in 2019-’20,” said Srinibas Das, block project manager, Odisha Livelihood Mission.

Improved farming techniques

Madhyam Foundation, a non-profit headquartered in Bhubaneswar, in collaboration with the Odisha Millet Mission and Watershed Support Services and Activities Network, has been encouraging Adivasi communities to cultivate traditional millets using improved farming techniques in Khairput in Malkangiri district. Seven panchayats – Gobindpali, Khairput, Rasbeda, Podghat, Guma, Parakanmala and Kadamguda – are implementing the programme.

Improved farming techniques include “millet intensification, line sowing and line transplantation”, said Likhar, the district coordinator of Watershed Support Services and Activities Network in Malkangiri, adding that farmers have reported increased seed germination rate and promising root intensification.

“Each year we organise food festivals,” said Santosh Kumar Behera, Madhyam Foundation’s Khairput coordinator. “We demonstrate the preparation of different food recipes of millets. Earlier they [the Adivasis] used to cultivate millets only for household consumption. But now they have increased the crop area for millets.”

Creating seed banks

The Odisha Millet Mission initiative also focuses on ensuring seed-sufficiency and promoting a culture of seed preservation for the next cropping season. Community-managed seed centres established in 14 districts work to restore farmers’ habit of saving and using seeds from their own crops and to increase access to good-quality seeds, said Likhar. Community-managed seed centres are managed by a committee of experienced farmers chosen by the villagers, he added.

“Women farmers played a key role in seed identification, collection, selection, preservation and storage of the local resilient varieties,” said Jagannath Majhi, Khairput-based Adivasi youth leader. They ensured that the seeds were properly sun-dried and organically preserved with bengunia (Begonia x semperflorens-cultorum) and neem (Azadirachta indica) leaves, he said.

Sanjita (left) and Rashmita Mandra (right) show indigenous seed varieties stored in their kitchen. The Odisha Millets Mission also focuses on ensuring seed-sufficiency and promoting a culture of seed preservation for the next cropping season. Photo credit: Abhijit Mohanty/ IndiaSpend

Between 2018 and 2020, community-managed seed centres have preserved about 392.66 quintal seeds, of which about 155.95 quintal were distributed among farmers, said Tapas Chandra Bhoi, assistant agriculture officer of Dasmantpur block in Koraput district. “We have learned that seed banks are successful in Adivasi areas where subsistence farming is predominant and traditional varieties of food crops are grown,” he said.

In order to ascertain the productivity of selected traditional and improved seed varieties, trials were conducted in collaboration with farmers during 2018-’19 and 2019-’20, Behera said. Farmers have been trained in sustainable agricultural techniques and methods such as line transplanting, optimum row spacing, depth of transplanting and plant population per unit area and timely sowing for higher productivity, he said.

“We make sure that seed varieties are selected based on their suitability to local conditions,” said Sujit Patro, block project coordinator of Parivartan, an NGO working on livelihood and Adivasi empowerment in Malkangiri. Suitable varieties are selected in collaboration with farmers while maintaining proper documentation of seed characteristics, yield rate, nutrition value and its resilience to diseases and pest infestation.

More efforts needed

Although the Odisha Millets Mission initiative has garnered appreciation at national level, experts working on food and nutritional security among the Adivasi communities have been advocating a more strategic approach.

“We need to decentralise the supply chain including procurement, processing and marketing in the state,” Aashima Choudhury, who works with Watershed Support Services and Activities Network, said. “Pragmatic research on robust logistics is the need of the hour.”

Bioavailability – the proportion of a nutrient, consumed in the diet, that is absorbed and utilised by the body – and appropriate processing technologies are key aspects if we aim to include millets in Integrated Child Development Services and mid-day meals, said Usha Dharmaraj from the grain science department, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Karnataka. Millets’ high fibre content can be lowered by semi-polishing them, she said, adding, “This will help to preserve bran and ultimately increase the bioavailability concentration.”

Scientists and activists also advocate for incorporating farmers’ voices and bringing together science and indigenous knowledge. Successful farmers’ land could be transformed into “field schools” where other farmers can get training and exposure to sustainable agricultural methods, said Mohan Kirsani, 26, a farmer and youth leader from Baunsapada village.

Listening to the indigenous farmers is key, said Joy Daniel Pradhan, development specialist at the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs. “Harmonising scientific assessments with traditional agro-ecological knowledge would strengthen climate change adaptability and empower millions of distressed small-scale farmers who are on the frontline of climate change.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.