Back to Millets in the wake of Covid-19

Still reeling from lockdown, women farmworkers in Chittoor found their way to food security by growing millets on small patches of land they had given up as barren.  But first, they had to organize.  Meera Raghavendra explains.

Neerugattuvaripalli: Farmer C Eshwaramma (right) in her ragi field with Kranti, WINS activist.

WINS and Mahila Rhythu Vedika

In 35 villages of Chittoor district, Andhra Pradesh, 1080 tenant cultivators and agricultural workers belonging to scheduled castes have steadily walked the path to economic and political empowerment. With the guidance of Women’s Initiatives (WINS), these women have attended training programs and public meetings and learned skills that enable them to take charge of their livelihood.  With confidence, they can now adapt agro ecological practices and invest their skills in economic organizations like the farmers’ producer organizations.   Though the Mahila Rythu Vedika or Forum for Women Farmers’ Rights, they voice their concerns with energy, commitment and courage.  Anyone who observed them in action, in taking forward their learning on the farm and to contribute to the growing knowledge of collectivization of the poor and marginalised women would see that they have indeed arrived in the man’s world.

COVID-19 Lockdown

Even for a month lockdown was unbearable for the women. Further extension broke them financially, forced them and their families go hungry, and pulled down their morale. With no means of transport available, marketing the harvest, grazing cattle became difficult. As a result, crops withered, cattle starved, yield of milk reduced. Due to strict government advisory barricades were erected in neighborhoods reporting positive cases. This traumatized the women who were going through hell clamped inside the house with no work. Added to this they fought irrational fears of contacting the dreaded infection with no cure, compounded by the myths and misconception around it. Covid relief package of free dry rations given by the Government which were inadequate, did not help the poor women as the queues were long and shops closed early as per Government orders. They often had to return empty handed and hungry.

What can we grow on a few cents of barren land?

CG gallu and Rompicherla mandals,in Chittoor District, AP is a rainfed region. 60% of them grow only hybrid tomatoes, hoping a bumper crops that can fetch a good price, twice a year, with a huge investment costs, while also working as wage earners in others’ farms. It was again only the mono crop culture,be it mangoe gardens or groundnuts, that invariably led them to misery. They had small patches of land (few cents of land) which was mostly left barren, as they  thought it would never be, worth the while to work on.It was then WINS entered with the idea of organizing women farmers,giving them twelve types of vegetables to grow in their kitchen garden ,which came in handy for them in these testing times.

Though millets were their staple diet, it was almost extinct for forty years. It became unaffordable for them as it formed only1% of cultivation in their villages. Moreover, rich people started using it with experts recommending millets as a source of healthy food to boost the immunity and fight covid. After we educated them about this, the women went back to cultivation of millets as an affordable source of nutritious diet. This coupled with cow based natural farming methods for kitchen garden and horticulture crops came to their rescue.

Women farmers who were impressed by the revival of traditional methods and crops were encouraged to get involved in the process.

Bandakindhapalli, July 2020: Women receive seeds to cultivate foxtail millet.

Troubleshooting every kind of millet

MRV identified women both tenant/small holder farmers who were keen in outperforming others in farm work. Members who had demonstrated knowledge and use of organic farming methods and reaped the benefits were chosen.  We encouraged people with blood sugar ailments to grow these (millets). 225 women preferred to grow finger millets ,110 pearl millet, and 40 brown top millet. The collectives had discussions about many challenges in growing millet crops  ranging from stalk not germinating and seeds wither, crops not dryout at the time of harvest, seeds decompose due to rain, crops eating away by owl/ birds/ pig menace, they also tried to find a way out for all these.  Their fond hope is that at least pearl millet won’t let them down.

Collectives got involved because millets were rain fed, short duration crops. They were convinced about becoming self reliant in future in uncertain situation caused by natural disasters and ensure food security even during such difficult times.

Women’s work

Women’s contribution in the labor intensive farm work is trivialized and treated as insignificant. The women could not assert themselves in their survival struggle. We chipped in with our support system by educating them, building their confidence; facilitate rights assertion to counter the challenges that exist in the system. This resulted in their coming together to take up something new. We ventured into the villages for the first time where no experts or functionaries of Agricultural department visited.  They travelled for observation visits for the first time, where their bonding at another level.

They realized that fighting hunger is possible and in the hands of Producers (women) and they have the reasons and rights to eat good and enough food, to sustain them. It is not merely agriculture related work, but insight on gender that stands out, and attracts women to see themselves as individuals with potential.  It reinforces the fact that food is the foundation for health.

As producers of food, they not only ensure our food security but also their own.

Meera Raghavendra is the convener of Women’s Initiatives (WINS) and Mahila Rhythu Vedika. AID supports WINS’ work in empowering women farmers through programs in sustainable agriculture, land rights and cooperatives.

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