The crops of truth
Restoring food security through traditional crops is not only sensible, but absolutely necessary. We must look away from the government's focus on cash and hybrid crops, argues Meena Menon.
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A millet that grows on dew, sorghum (jowar) that can survive on very little water, - local farmers in Medak, part of Telangana, call them Satyam pantalu- the crops of truth-they live off the moisture in the air. In the last 20 years many of these crops have vanished or "drowned" as the farmers put it. For a younger generation brought up on ration rice and surrounded by the marvels of Coca Cola, Pepsi and instant food, the crops of truth no longer have any fascination.

Yet for Dalit women like Laxmamma, Anjamma, Manemma and others in Zaheerabad mandal in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh, these crops which they have been growing on their small farms, have made all the difference between starvation and survival.

In July, the thought uppermost in the minds of all farmers in Zaheerabad is "vanam" rain and there is very little or none of it. They look to the skies, promisingly and deceptively dark, and say Vanam ledu (there is no rain). Crops of jowar are already yellowing and they face a disaster if the skies do not relent.

Twenty years after the cropping pattern in these regions have been skewed thanks to the government pushing cash crops, there is an attempt to restore the vital role traditional crops play in food security. A strategy and action plan for the sub-state of Zaheerabad region in the Deccan, Andhra Pradesh, has been prepared by the Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO based in Pastapur near Zaheerabad. The report which was ready in June, is expected to be incorporated into the final National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), a process underway since 1999 as a Ministry of environment and forests project, sponsored by UNDP. Its purpose is to produce a plan that would ensure conservation of India's biodiversity, sustainable use of its biological resources and equity in accessing those resources. The final report of the NBSAP is expected to be ready next year.

The NBSAP is looking at domesticated biodiversity, apart from other key issues, as a major theme of study. This is an area critical to the issue of biodiversity since it includes agricultural bio diversity-crops, livestock, poultry. The NBSAP has initiated several research studies in agro-biodiversity of which the sub -state plan for Zaheerabad region is an important one. Zaheerabad area has some of the most of degraded farm areas in India and the diversity of the cropping system on infertile soils is significant, according to the report of the sub- state plan for Zaheerabad region. More than 20,000 farmers from 62 villages in the region were actively involved in the preparation of the plan. Many felt that traditional crops were good for health, for enhancing soil fertility and good for cattle, both in terms of fodder and food. The plan becomes crucial as already the rich crop diversity in the region is threatened with small millets like manchu korra, a foxtail millet that grows on dew, in danger of extinction.

Articles in this series
 •  Uncultivated foods and the poor
 •  Genetic security in native baskets
 •  Contract farming: A burden
 •  Fortune favours prepared farmers
 •  The crops of truth In Gangwar village, 16 km from Zaheerabad, Anjamma takes out a treasure of seeds stored in cowdung powder, ash and neem leaves. She has over 65 varieties of seeds. "I need very little manure to grow them and the crops are very tasty." On her four acre plot, Anjamma has planted over 30 varieties of crops. She points to each of the sown varieties, fed only on natural manure. She plucks out a few "weeds", some of them make a delicious chutney. "Even if I lose ten crops, I get the produce of 20," she said with a smugness born of experience.

"I give seeds to many people in the village and the sarpanch comes to my house," she said. For a Dalit woman, considered untouchable, Anjamma, has achieved the impossible. Married at nine, like scores of rural women, her life was one of relentless hard work. She raised four children as a sharecropper and now she is devoted to popularising traditional crops. She is a permaculture consultant to other villagers.

" The upper castes lost all the traditional crops because they switched over to sugarcane," she said. "Now they come to me for seeds of millets or jowar, black gram. Since the last ten years I have given seeds to almost 20 people every year," she added. Many of the traditional millets are hard to come by even today and only a few like Anjamma have them.

Manemma , also from Gangwar, owns only three acres but grows a wide variety of crops on it. Over 60, she still weeds and works on her land. "We grew up eating hardy traditional food unlike the youngsters of today. Foxtail millet in particular gives me warmth and makes me strong enough to work in heavy rain, something the younger generation cannot do," she said."I prefer to grow my food working hard, than buying substandard rice in the ration shop," remarked Manemma. "I have shown my son what to grow I hope he has the sense to listen to me ," she added.

In Humnapur village, Laxmamma and her 60 -year -old mother treasure these crops -over 85 varieties of them- in small brightly painted clay pots, stored carefully in a wooden box.

Laxmamma recalls how she got a particular variety of green gram which doesn't need much water, from the neighbouring district of Bidar. Since the last five or six years, many women have started sowing these rare crops in their fields and today they have retrieved at least 50 to 60 varieties that had almost been lost forever. Now gene banks have been established and seeds are given out to other people from their own village or neighbouring villages.

Thanks to the efforts of Deccan Development Society, permaculture has gained popularity in the area. Community gene banks involving women's groups from over 60 villages and more than 1000 women are engaged in situ conservation and enhancement of biodiversity on their own farms.

Poor Dalit women today are the arbiters of cropping pattern and biodiversity. Today a woman like Laxmamma can go and video film inside the house of a landlord and the upper caste sarpanch of Gangwar village comes to Anjamma's house for those precious seeds.

Laxmamma who expanded her collection from six to 85 crop varieties in six years, said from the beginning they grew mixed crops. "We got fodder for animals, the land was mulched due to the leaves and the food gave us strength. Now I feel good when people come to me for seeds. I have saved them from drowning," Laxmamma added.

In Krishnapur village, Sherpa bi said the sangham (a women's collective) took land on lease and grew traditional crops on it and the landlords were surprised to see the productivity of the land. Now the women buy only essential items as their need for food crops is satisfied. "Earlier we grew a huge variety of crops and the groundnut, specially was very delicious. We needed three months to sort the groundnut harvest. Now that is lost forever. In the last 20 years all these varieties of jowar, mung (green gram), little millet have disappeared and the rainfall has also reduced. The government is encouraging the use of hybrid seeds and pesticides which has ruined our land," she added.

Now groundnut is hardly grown here and even the local rice (bailodlu ) is difficult to come by. "Now we feel these old crops kept the fertility of the soil and gave us more in terms of nutrition. Earlier we ate jowar and rotis made of black gram, now we need to go back to those old food habits," Sherpa bi said.

A mobile biodiversity yatra that was conducted through 62 villages of Zaheerabad mandal in January aimed at introducing people to the rich biodiversity of crops in the region that had been lost and revived. Algole Ratnamma said ,"We showed the people the seeds we had- some of them had vanished from their area long ago. We told people to go back to farmyard manure and stop using pesticides. The government gives subsidy for growing sugarcane, why don't they extend it to food crops like millets or jowar. Many wept seeing those seeds which they thought had drowned forever," she added. The good thing about the yatra was that many people who were growing traditional crops felt encouraged.

Ratnamma from Humnapur said that after the famine of 1975, people had lost faith in their land and hybrid crops took over. They were tasteless and did not yield much fodder. However, Sammamma from Bidakanne said people were not fond of growing traditional crops as processing them which involved hand- pounding, was no longer done. She said, " I do give out seeds but when the crop fails they think it is because of the seeds and blame me. The fact is rainfall has reduced her over the years and soil fertility has gone down."

Zaheerabad region is a drought prone area and people have traditionally adopted dryland farming practices as it is a semi arid tract. Deccan Development Society which has been working here for fifteen years, found that with a small investment of Rs 500 per family, helping with timely sowing and providing a pair of bullocks in time, much of the fallow land in the region could be made productive. Mr P V Satheesh , director of DDS, said," When the RS 2 kg a rice scheme was introduced in the PDS some years ago, about 100,000 hectares of land in this area went fallow. "

To encourage the growing and eating of traditional crops, DDS is acquiring two dehusking machines for millets soon. "We need to create a market of our own," said Satheesh. Already a shop run by the Society operates in Zaheerabad where you can get organic food, vermi compost as well as spices.

Some of the soil in this region, marked by red laterite is black alluvial soil which is used to grow sugarcane, using bore well water. A nearby sugarcane factory is the attraction for cane farmers who are assured of returns, never mind sinking water tables and excess use of fertilisers. They also get Rs 8000 per acre as a loan to grow sugarcane, plus fertilizer subsidy.

The diversion from food to cash crops is a diversion marked by much tragedy -- loss of life, loss of soil fertility and loss of essential nutritional elements. And it has set an irreversible pattern that the women are trying to undo by sticking doggedly to their crop diversity. Will the younger generation grow these crops? Anjamma often wonders,"Who are we protecting these crops for, for whom are we maintaining this crop diversity, this richness of produce, this wide adaption to local conditions?"

There are no ready answers. Farmers during the mobile biodiversity yatra accused the government of promoting fertilisers and cash crops and demanded subsidies for food crops like millets and jowar and also that they be introduced in the public distribution system. Farmers said traditional crops did not fetch a good market price and women did not pound them making them ready to eat anymore. It was far simpler to go out and buy rice at the ration shops.

The other issue was reduction in the number of cattle and non -availability of fodder and grazing grounds. Farmers sold their cattle to the meat factories that have come up in the area. Farmers have demanded the closure of these factories and loans to help farmers to acquire cattle, instead of tractors.

While it was important to grow the traditional crops, women felt there must be a market as well as processing facilities. Children should be taught the importance of these crops in schools and the government must include traditional foods in mid-day meal schemes.

According to Satheesh, there was a triple marginalisation in this are already farmers were cultivating drylands which had lower levels of fertility, But it was these lands that grew several varieties of millets, some as high yielding as six quintals an acre- foxtail millet. Over a period of time, when the external market forces came into play, these crops were marginalised and so the lands on which they grew were characterised as useless. In turn the farmers who grew the crops and the women who looked after them and cooked them were also marginalised. Most of the people here, the poor and marginal farmers, are Dalits.

This region used to grow 85 varieties of crops about 25 years ago but the entire genepool has shrunk in less than ten years, he said. Initially DDS made an investment of Rs 2000 an acre to get farmers to revive cultivation on fallow land and start cultivating traditional crops. With funds from GTZ, Germany, the project decided to upgrade marginalised lands and encourage women to grow traditional crops. The payback of the one time grant was in the form of seeds.

Since the project began, seeds are exchanged all over the place-they are never sold - and the borrower repays either one and a half times the quantity or double. "It was not only the dwindling seeds biodiversity but the ecological degradation of the area that needed attention. When we started here 15 years ago, out aim was to get people at least 100 days of employment on their own lands. This involved clearing land, weeding it, bunding it and adding topsoil to fallow lands," he said.

The state- owned scheduled caste corporation also facilitated a 50 per cent subsidy for women to buy land and at least 500 women have bought land. DDS even managed to set up two single women's sanghams to buy land, much to the ire of the men in the villages.

The government pushes hybrid and cash crops, in an area with poor water resources, almost compelling farmers to grow them with the hope of getting good market prices. The barrages on the Manjira, a tributary of the Godavari, in the region have been built to supply water to Hyderabad city, 100 km away. The sub- state plan wants to reverse these harmful trends set in motion by the government. It can only be successful if the state government is serious about doing something for the poor. If it can only come out of its cyber fantasies and see the real world.

Meera Menon
April 2002

Meera Menon is a freelance journalist based in Bombay. This article is part of a series of pulications reproduced with the permission of the Deccan Development Society