Zaheerabad (Telangana): Hidden in the red rocky dry land, a revolution is growing. In and around 70 villages of Zaheerabad town of Telangana, the local women have been growing multiple varieties of millets, pulses, and oil seeds year after year.
I was in Zaheerabad recently to celebrate the ‘International Year of Millets’ and to meet the millet seed ammas who have been at the forefront of the organic millet revolution. To create awareness and increase the consumption of millets around the world, the United Nations declared the year 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millets’.
My journey into the millet lands in Zaheerabad started at about 11 am when I stepped into the building of the Decan Development Society (DDS), an agri-based local non-governmental organisation (NGO). Nearby, a lonely community radio tower stood tall, transmitting folk Telugu music. At a distance, four decorated wooden carts were parked under a neem tree. Next to it was a mini open-air amphitheatre decorated with garlands and flowers. My host and translator Laya, programme coordinator at DDS, told me that the millet festival had just concluded.
Wasting no time, I walked further to reach a seed bank. Since 1995, this mud and laterite stone building has served as the home and “doomsday vault” for farmers in the region. When I walked in, one Laxmi amma, aged over 60, wearing a muddy brown saree with a blue border, was seen carefully taking out the 75 varieties of seeds for display in mud-plastered straw bowls.
“They are also our children, and we take special care of them as each seed is very important to us,” she told, pointing to the seeds and reflecting on her long years as a ‘seed saver’. She proudly stated that she still grows 25 varieties each season and that she has trained thousands of women to save and grow millets over the years.
“Canada, London, Germany, Singapore, Senegal, Singapore, Mali are among the 20 countries I visited talking about millets,” she said. She received an award from the state governor under women empowerment for her contribution to millet seeds keeping in 2020.
“Look at these mud-plastered baskets, we use them to save our jowar seeds. We add ash, neem and seed and then close the top of the baskets with cow dung. This is the traditional way of saving seeds,” she said while giving me a tour of the community seed bank.
Soon, I realised that a seed bank was like an ‘earthy’ womb – cool, dark and gentle. The mud walls had elongated pots entombed for insulation, and the roof was made of stacked-up terracotta glasses and mud. Once inside, one can no longer feel even the slightest of the scorching sun outside.
After exchanging pleasantries, I spoke with other seed keepers inside and asked them about their work. I then asked them what they thought about growing paddy or wheat or even other commercial crops. It was Mogulamma who answered my question. “I grow over 80 varieties of crops – millets, pulses, oilseeds, etc., on my two acres. Even if I get more money growing paddy and wheat, eventually, I will have to buy all these things (millets) with the same money, so why not grow them? We hardly depend on the market,” she answered.
“And don’t think we don’t make money while growing a diversity of crops. Our millets are sold as grains as well as fodder. And our crops are climate resilient too. Even if six or ten of them fail, we have the other 10-12 on the field that survives.”
I felt there was no doubt her cropping patterns were climate smart.
Mogulamma is also a mini-celebrity among the group, as she has been awarded with many accolades, including one from the President of India in 2018. But the other five seed savers were no less. Among them, they grow over 150 varieties organically, often leasing land and toiling on hard red soils with little water.
Millets, being nutritious, also carry an anti-nutritive stigma around them. So, I asked the women whether millets fulfilled their nutritional needs. Did they sprout the millets before eating them?
Narsamma, from Metalkunta village, owns six acres of red-soiled land, came forward to answer my questions. “We have millet seeds for every requirement. There are seeds that are eaten by a new mother and other varieties that are eaten when one is ill. For different ailments too, we use flours from different varieties. We grow for household consumption first, and only sell the surplus in the market. We have even started to sprout our millets before eating them. This increases the strength in the millet flour,” said Narsamma, who cultivates horse-gram and foxtail millet.
With the talking over, it was time to see the diversity on the field, so I moved on to meet another seed saver and farmer Chandraamma.
The seed queen
It had been 10 long hours since Chandraamma had been working on her plot of leased black soil land. Chandraamma owns one-and-half acres of red soil land, but has leased three acres this year. For the past 30 years, she has been waking up at 4 am to complete her household chores before reaching her field at 5 am. Each year, she grows 28 varieties in the Rabi season and 30 varieties in the Kharif season.
But she doesn’t mind the hard work. “This is my land and my life, hence I do this,” she told me, as she tended to her toddler grandson. She showed me the field with intercropped jowar, safflower, pulses, channa, and other local vegetables. Overall, she has seven crops and 16 sub-varieties growing on her field. Later, she took me to her organic sugarcane field across the lane.
As it was a harvest season, there was much hustle-bustle. Additional labour was cutting the sugarcane and loading it on the truck while she was busy harvesting her native jowar.
“I put the thorny safflower on the boundaries, to protect the other crops from animals. This is my natural fence,” she remarked. She caught me looking at her jowar plants and questioned, “Can you spot the difference between these jowar plants?” I looked and let her continue, “while the closed pod jowar is good for drought years, the open pod jowar is for excessive rains. The closed pods capture the moisture, while the open pods ensure the plants don’t catch disease during excessive rains.”
Chandraamma was full of little agri-trivia and tricks, for she had spent her entire life perfecting her agriculture. Over time, she had saved hundreds of varieties and become an example for many generations of women. “I joined the women’s group after marriage. My mother-in-law got me to save millet seeds and I have never stopped since,” she said.
I asked her about agri-chemical and how they boost her production. She sternly told me “no” to chemicals. “I only believe in organic and natural farming. Even sugarcane is an indigenous variety. I plant it because it grows well in black soil. For my red soil, I keep millets and pulses. We have to plant according to the soil and climate,” she remarked.
Not even 500 metres from her farm, farmers had recently sold land and a new colony was coming up. I asked her if she would also sell her land for money and live a comfortable life. “If I sell my land, where will I go? This is my life and dignity, all in one. I have brought up my children working on this land, I can never sell it. Saving millet seeds is my duty,” she replied.
As our conversation finished, I walked to a palash with blooming flowers to get the full view of Chandraamma’s field and the multiple crops growing on it. The evening sun glistened off her earthy skin, but she was busy harvesting and humming a tune about rain, harvests and jaggery. And I was convinced that this millet revolution has still not lost its way.