Locally cultivated ragi will be part of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme for the first time in Odisha, with Keonjhar district introducing it as part of the pre-school meal from July 2020 onwards. Additionally, 14 districts — a part of the state’s Millet Mission — will provide ragi through the public distribution system (PDS) from September, the state agriculture department said.
The initiatives are part of the state’s millet mission which was initiated in 2017 with the aim to to popularise local production of millets among farmers and increase local household consumption for better dietary diversity and nutritional gains. One of the key commitments was also to integrate locally grown millets as part of public food systems such as ICDS and PDS, mid-day meals and eventually government-run hostels and homes.
The idea is also to build climate resilience among farmers and promote agroecological farming methods for cultivation that draw on chemical-free agriculture practices and locally sustained food systems.
Odisha has an immense malnutrition burden to address, with about 45 per cent children who are stunted and about 41 per cent women who have a below-normal body mass index, according to the National Family Health Survey, 2015-16.
After Keonjhar, the initiative will be replicated in Sundargarh district from August and scaled up in other districts in the coming months. The districts will be using their District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds for this. Keonjhar has allocated Rs 1.5 crore for the initiative so far.
In Keonjhar, ragi laddoos (sphere-shaped sweets) will be given as morning snacks for two days a week to pre-school children over and above the usual meal and is likely to better address nutritional deficits. After an initial pilot in one block, the initiative is likely to reach 100,000 children enrolled in Anganwadis across the district, according to officials.
“After the pilot from the districts, the learnings will be analysed and integrated to launch the same initiative in other districts of the state,” said Saurabh Garg, principal secretary of the state’s agriculture department.
Since protocols over the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are currently in place, the mix will be delivered to children’s homes for now, said state officials.
In the first phase, the pilot will cover one block and 335 anganwadi centres (AWC) and be extended to all AWCs in the district by September.
The cumulative ragi procurement made by Odisha this year at minimum support price (MSP) from the 14 districts was 95,000 quintals, compared to just 18,000 quintals last year. All the districts will provide 1. 5 kilogrammes ragi per person (out of the five kg per person entitlement) through PDS.
Incentivising agronomic practices
Unlike the consumer and urban market-driven approach, the millet drive is largely focused on local food diversity and ensuring people who produce food also get to eat it.
In terms of agriculture practices, this approach was described by locals as a ‘middle path’ by the locals. The state government is incentivising agronomic practices including pest and weed management through organic methods.
It does not, however, exclude farmers who want to use chemical-based fertilisers.
“As farmers benefit from using bio-inputs, others also feel encouraged,” said Garg. “We have not got into certifying bio-input produce organic so far, since we are looking for a steady ecological change. We may rethink once production scales up,” he added.
Farmers who have adopted bio-inputs and follow System of Millets Intensification are given incentives for three years: Rs 5,000 per hectare in the first year, Rs 3,000 per hectare in the second year and Rs 1,500 in the third year.
The money is credited in the farmers’ account at the end of the sowing and harvest season based on the report submitted by local implementation agencies and vetted by the district administration.
Last year, about 54,000 farmers used bio-inputs and were paid the incentive. The number is likely to increase to 70,000 farmers this year.
Seed centres, local enterprises around bio-inputs, rented equipment etc was created by the districts to facilitate easy access. In Keonjhar, there are custom hiring centres at the block level that are managed by local self-help groups which provide equipment to enable agronomic practices.
Keonjhar district had rolled out its millets cultivation drive last year. The ICDS initiative will be supported through its own local produce and excess produce in other districts where cultivation under the mission was ongoing since 2017.
There are currently four districts — Kalahandi, Koraput, Malkangiri and Rayagada — that have excess ragi production, according to state government estimates.
These will support ICDS initiatives in Keonjhar and Sundargarh, which have the advantage of piloting through their own district-level budgets.
“Ideally, the aim is to make the district self-sufficient with produce, procurement and distribution. However, that will take some time,” said Ashima Chaudhary, the state coordinator for the Millet Mission.
“The districts that grow excess ragi are sparsely populated. The excess can, thus, be redistributed according to the need within the state,” she added.
Experts feel the onus on non-chemical approaches coupled with a focus on nutrition and food security so far distinguishes the Odisha approach from that of the Union government.
“Often, such interventions are driven towards creating attractive markets and ignore household nutrition and food security. The fact that this endeavour approaches millets from the point of nutrition and safe food is important,” said Kavitha Kuruganthi of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture.
She closely follows the approaches in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka with respect to sustainable millet farming and integration within government-run food programmes.
Apart from the cultivation, Kuruganthi said it is important that Odisha is developing decentralised infrastructure for processing and re-popularising millets. “That goes a long way in ensuring local availability and improving dietary diversity,” she added.