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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project

Crop diversification is the Punjab government’s top policy priority for achieving the goal of sustainable agriculture (SDG 2.4). As of now, the crop diversification initiative in Punjab has focused on crops such as maize, kharif pulses (arhar, mungbean, urdbean, cluster bean), oilseeds (soybean, til), poplar-based agro-forestry, and cotton. However, some young farmers in Punjab are venturing out to grow crops that have not had as much government attention. By shifting a portion of their resources to millet cultivation, farmers are setting a new bar for resilient farming and entrepreneurship. Experts argue that millet farming is a more sustainable alternative to rice due to low water requirement, pest resilience, and profitability. But the success of such a cropping practice in the state requires a policy push. 

Millet Field.

Millets were always a traditional sustainable crop in Punjab, though they have never been grown in dominance. Archaeological evidence reveals that they were used in agricultural strategies before the appearance of the cities of the Indus Civilisation, when farmers used them in combination with other crops to create sustainable food systems. Millets were also important in sustaining the population during extended periods of aridity and rainfall variability that affected the subcontinent a little over 4000 years ago. Despite this deep history, the prominence of millets in India’s recent agricultural systems has declined.  

Thankfully, active flows of information about agriculture and its governing policy environment, the impact of climate change, and evolving consumer markets are influencing positive change. In particular, the changing demography of farmers in Punjab is leading to the increased adoption of millet cultivation. Though the crop covers less than a thousand hectares today, ragi, bajra and guar (all millets) are now being adopted as supplementary crops throughout the state, though the scale remains low. 

The story of Paramjit Singh Pannu, a young farmer of village Katari, Ludhiana with just over a hectare of operational land, is inspiring. He is one of the farmers covered under the TIGR2ESS Flagship Project 4 programme for farmer capacity building run by Center for International Projects Trust (CIPT). Part of his land is cultivated with millets, while he practices mixed cropping on the rest. He was motivated to take up organic farming of finger millets by a strong desire to make small farming viable. He has also ventured into processing and marketing this organic produce, which he is scaling up by using his social capital with other farmers. The venture involves multidimensional activities ranging from research and development–resulting in the development of a new variety of millet–and working with partnering farmers: by building their capacity, distributing seed to them, purchasing their produce and helping offloading any surplus stock, and running collective storage facilities. Instead of selling raw millets, he processes the produce into various products like biscuits, flour, instant food items, etc. These are sold under his brand ‘Farmative’ via a highway-side small retail store. Contract manufacturing for a few national and international companies is also underway.

While Paramjit Singh started his venture all by himself, he believes that collective efforts have the potential to bring a new boon for small farming, in general, and millet cultivation, in particular. To manifest this, he has gotten together with a few farmers in a collective named ‘Punjab Native Seed Growers’. They exhibit their products in various national and international organic food festivals, and plan to ratchet-up the collective by forming a Farmer Producer Organization (FPO) and encouraging more farmers to grow millets. He has a strong belief that small farmers can face up to hostile neo-liberal agricultural markets by working collectively.

“I have been experimenting with millet cultivation since 2010. Though I had to bear losses during this journey, but I stayed on the path. I have managed to develop a new variety of millet seed, which I intend to distribute to my fellow farmers and generate collective gains. And I am doing all this without any institutional support. Farmers are enthusiastic for new profitable crops. All they need is some handholding and training and risk mitigation support”, says Paramjit Singh.

Anupraj Singh Grewal, another young farmer who has 24.5 hectares of operational land in village Malakpur, Ludhiana, has taken up millet farming for the first time, shifting about two ha of land away from rice cultivation. The millet he has picked is bajra - a high fodder yielding crop that is considered indispensable as cattle feed in this region. Interestingly, there is now evidence that the use of millet for cattle feed is also an ancient practice that goes back to the period before the Indus Civilisation. While he continues to grow the traditional crops - wheat and paddy - he is also practicing orchard and poplar farming. Favourable market responses have encouraged him to increase the area under millet cultivation in the upcoming kharif season. His millet produce goes to dairy farmers via commission agents (arhtiyas). Arguing that millet as an easy crop to farm, he believes that its profitability depends on demand and supply that determine its prices.

“It is high time that new-gen farmers realize the need to shift away from paddy, as farmers are facing increasing water issues and paddy cultivation is becoming less profitable with time. Public procurement of paddy may also not be around for long. We need to change before it is too late. I experimented with bajra last year and am optimistic about my plan to cultivate more land with it. However, the scale of my farming has enabled me to venture into new crops. I am not sure whether small farmers can delve into new cropping patterns without any structured assistance from government, of which price support is the most critical”, says Anupraj Singh Grewal.

According to published data, the return over cost for bajra is 85%, and that for jowar and ragi is 50% each. This, compared to the 50% return over cost for rice and considering that millet crops are also water efficient, makes millets a an economically beneficial option. However, millets yields less than rice. For instance, the yield of bajra is 635 kg per hectare, while that of rice is 4034 kg/ha. Consequently the crop is less remunerative compared to the latter. Cultivating millets makes economic sense only if its yields are increased or if produce receivables are hiked. Significant policy support will be required for millet cultivation to be adopted widely in the state. Thus, it is critical at this stage to create an enabling environment that facilitates this change. This will need to engender preferential financial support, research and development, strengthening marketing infrastructure, and crop insurance The Department of Agriculture can play the key role in capacity building of young farmers in millet farming via its wide network, which would ensure economic and ecological benefits

It is increasingly recognised that Punjab agriculture must diversify away from paddy and into alternate crops. Though this solution has been proposed for over three decades now, the changes at the ground level are unnoticeable. Examples of agricultural development and rural sector growth with the advent of Green Revolution reveals that farmers, especially the younger farmers in Punjab, have always been risk tolerant and enterprising. For the Second Green Revolution to gain traction, farmers need to be supported in adopting climate resilient and viable crop choices. TIGR2ESS - FP4 (CIPT) has made its contribution to such efforts by strongly engaging and facilitating farmers to adopt water efficient crop choices. There is, however, a need to encompass more crops in such initiatives to generate agricultural sustainability. The state government’s unparalleled role and involvement in initiatives towards crop diversification need to be recognised and immediately acted upon before its too late.

This article was written by Shruti Bhogal*, Adam S Green**, Sandeep Dixit*** and Cameron A Petrie***

*Post-Doctoral Research Associate at Centers for International Projects Trust; **Senior Teaching Associate in the Department of Archaeology at University of Cambridge, ***Director at Centers for International Projects Trust, New Delhi, ****Reader in the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge.

Photo credit: Paramvir Singh Bhogal.