Abhishek Pandey and Deeksha Tiwari

Paspalum scrobiculatum and Panicum sumatrense may seem like strange names. However, they are stark reminders of the failure of the Indian state in safeguarding the interests of the disadvantaged. Paspalum scrobiculatum and Panicum sumatrense, locally known as kodo and kutki respectively, reflect the shift in traditional dietary habits due to superficial concepts of development.

Kodo and kutki are millet varieties that belong to the same family of crops. These millets are drought-tolerant crops and can even survive in conditions where the soil is of marginal quality. Dehusking kodo millet is a tough task as they contain seven inedible layers that need to be removed prior to consumption.  The nutritional content of the millet, however, exceeds that of both rice and wheat. They are a rich source of protein and fibre. With 66.6% carbohydrates and 353 kcal per 100g, these millets have the potential to efficiently tackle malnutrition and stunting among children. But why are they important from a policy perspective?

Let us meet Tulasha Bai, from Ghata village of Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh, who is an 85-year-old tribal woman. She belongs to the Baiga tribe, one of the most prominent tribes in Madhya Pradesh. She says, “We used kodo-kutki to treat fever and build immunity. It kept all Baiga fit, healthy and warm”. She remembers kodo and kutki cultivation as a glorious thing of the past, one that holds little value for the younger generation. Bai says, “Ab ke bache chawal aur gehu khate hai, kodu nahi, na khate hai na ugate hai‘ (Today’s generation only eats rice and wheat, they do not consume Kodu nor cultivate it).” According to Neglected and Underutilized Species Communities data, the production of these millets in the districts of Dindori and Mandla has declined by more than 50% in the last 20 years.

Kodo-kutki millets are an important part of culture for both Baiga and Gond tribes, which are spread across Dindori and Mandla districts of Madhya Pradesh. This article will take you through the complex web of administrational approaches to the development of kodo-kutki; and the impact the cultivation of these crops has on the lives of the concerned tribes through anecdotal evidence. This evidence is an outcome of on-ground experience.

Web of MSP

A decrease in locally grown millets in Dindori and Mandla is directly related to the Public Distribution System (PDS). In order to understand this relationship between public procurement of rice and wheat and the production of kodo and kutki, we must first take a more comprehensive look at local experience. Harilal Kushram, a resident of Mungela village, mentions, “After PDS has become accessible and Minimum Support Price (MSP) is provided, we have shifted our cropping patterns to grow paddy and wheat. These crops have a readily available market which does not exist for kodo-kutki.” The problem that arises in incentivizing farmers to produce traditional crops are two-fold and often correlated. One, the introduction of higher MSP for rice and wheat has decreased the incentive of farmers to seek risk by growing other crops. Two, due to an underdeveloped market for kodo and kutki millets, rice and wheat production exploits additional resources like water in an already scarce belt. Lack of adequate evaluation of the topography of the area and incentivization of foreign crops unfit for the region has disrupted the natural chain of traditional agriculture in the area.

The change in growth patterns along the Madhya Pradesh tribal belt has directly impacted the lives of all its residents. The shift in diet patterns, from high protein-fibre millets to rice and wheat, has had an adverse health impact. Voicing his concerns, Ramesh Kumar from Mohti village says, “Kodo and kutki helped us in increasing our life expectancy. My grandmother lived up to the age of 93.” However, in the past decade, there has been a shift in crop growing pattern. The 80-year-old Samro Bai, from Mungela village, claims that her “children and grandchildren have become weak. They fall sick frequently.” She says, “We used to work 10-12 hours in the field but now people are unable to work even for 8 hours. They have become lazy. No one eats kodo and kutki which keep our body healthy. Everyone is eating rice.”

An interesting question here is that if rapid changes are causing harm to the community and the environment by exposing arid soil to fertilizers and extensive extraction of groundwater, how has this issue been addressed?

Interventions disguised in the cloak of development

In a bid to promote kodo and kutki as cash crops due to their high nutritional value, state governments and social development organizations devised an intervention to empower rural women. The intervention was proposed by the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) department of Madhya Pradesh government in 2013. It was interlinked with the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) Scheme and aimed at improving child nutrition in the area by using kodo-kutki to make sweet bars as breakfast for school children. Although the intentions leading up to the scheme were noble, it led to huge losses to the tribals that grew kodo and kutki.

Since there was no regulatory support provided to the tribal community, removing the seven layers of each grain was simply left to the villagers. Seed cleaning machines, which generally cost around two to three lakhs, can also be used for dehusking kodo and kutki. Hence, the district administration placed one seed cleaning machine for the purpose. Self-Help Groups (SHGs) in the area were given the responsibility of processing kodo into sweet bars and supplying them to the Anganwadis. So far so good. New incentives were introduced with support from the government. However,  it is essential to understand that the Mid Day Meal scheme’s supply chain was running under the state government. Whereas the maintenance and functioning of the seed cleaning machines were placed under the National Rural Livelihoods Mission for the production of sweet bars. This created problems in terms of implementation, coordination, and accountability.

With the increase in demand and access to only one machine, some women began dehusking manually, leading to incomplete removal of layers from the food grains. This resulted in food poisoning among the children of one of the Anganwadi centres. Post this incident, the entire order for sweet bars was cancelled in the middle of the crop cultivation season. The tribe suffered a huge loss as the entire process was bifurcated among departments leading to dilution of accountability.

Since words like ‘local employment generation’ and ‘rural empowerment’ find repeated mentions in policy documents, different departments kept introducing new policies to bring about development. Another district specific intervention was introduced under the Aajeevika scheme. The tribal community was asked to collect as many quintals of kodo and kutki as they could. The district office for Aajeevika promised to develop secure markets and connect the supply chain with the wholesale procurement company. However, this target remained unachieved, leaving 48 quintals of kodo, 52 quintals of kutki, and a huge burden to the farmers. The food grains were left in the village organization’s office for five to six months without any official visit to the storage facility or conveyance of any information to the tribes. Due to the lack of clean and sufficient storage facilities, adequate support from the government, and additional cost of guarding the crop against animals; the tribe lost crop bargaining power and sold large chunks of their produce at steep prices to private middlemen. Knowing that the Baiga tribe have undergone significant change in their eating habits, the private contractors made the most of the situation. The tribals were exploited as one kilogram of kodu or kutki was exchanged with one kilogram of rice or wheat. The middlemen procured rice and wheat at a cheap price from ration shops and sold kodo and kutki grains at Rs. 120 per kg in the market. The tribal community failed to understand the lopsided negotiation which led to a loss of Rs. 87,000.

Upon inquiring, it was noticed that the department responsible for liasoning did not have sufficient capacity to formalize the contract and had to give up the intervention. This exploitation could have been avoided if government departments maintained coordination. Even though the agricultural department and local administration met their targets of distributing seeds and fertilizers to farmers and bringing about policy change to improve farmer’s income respectively, their activities opened new doors of exploitation. The example of kodo and kutki illustrates the nature of development that often comes at the expense of disadvantaged communities who do not possess political agency.

The seeds were not enough. The Mid-day Meal Scheme was not enough. The subsidised water and electricity were not enough. Promising words like ‘local employment’ and ‘empowerment’ were not enough. But all these interventions together were enough to damage the trust and expectations of an entire tribe to invest in the cultivation of  kodo and kutki.

The views expressed in the post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the ISPP Policy Review or the Indian School of Public Policy. Images via open source.