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Coarse cereals retreating in dryland agriculture in South India

The case of millet and sorghum in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh


09 / 1997

In most dry and rainfed regions of India, farmers have retained the traditional practices of dryland farming. Thus, mixed cropping - a practice used in virtually every form of traditional agriculture - persists in the semi-arid areas of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India. Through a shrewd combination of different crops and a diversity of varieties within one crop, mixed cropping ensures security in the event of monsoon failure and increases the returns from the land thanks to the complementarity of crops (in terms of nutrient availability, water holding capacity, stages of growth, etc.). Among the numerous crop combinations found in small farmers’ fields in Karnataka, these frequently show up : finger millet (ragi)and mustard ; groundnut, sorghum (jowar), pigeon pea (a pulse, also known as redgram), cowpea ; finger millet, fieldbean and amaranth (two pulses), castor (for oil purpose), sorghum, chillies.

On the Deccan Plateau, these crops serve to meet the family consumption and they ensure a fairly balanced diet, the millet being used as a staple, and the pulses providing some protein. Ragi is a very hardy crop as well as a grain of great nutritive value considered more sustainnig to people doing hard physical work than any other grain. It produces good fodder used for working or milch cattle (1). Jowar can withstand considerable drought, and it gives good yields of grain and fodder.

The cultivation of these minor cereals has however been on the decline for the last twenty-five years. In the major sorghum-growing districts, for instance, the area alloted for sorghum cultivation has consistently decreased. This change in cultivation patterns has been particularly marked in the states of Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Gujarat. Only in Maharashtra has sorghum production remained high (2).

The reasons for such a trend are both numerous and complex. They can however be articulated around the following few factors. Every year, the total amount of land under cultivation diminishes due to the conversion of agricultural land for other purposes such as housing, mining, or aquaculture and due to the ecological devastation of land (impoverished or polluted soils, water-logged areas as a result of over-irrigation, high levels of salinity)or the flooding of large areas as a result of big dam construction). Moreover, the relative area planted in native millets - often called "minor cereals" - decreases to the benefit of cash crops such as sugarcane, potato, sunflower, cotton or turmeric and of other cereals like rice and wheat. Certain varieties of millets like pearl millet (bajra)or little millet are also gradually abandoned because they are low-yielders. They have further been stigmatized as "cereal of the poor". This negative connotation is arguably at the root of changes in food preference in the rural areas and of the quasi inexistant urban demand for such cereals.

The Public Distribution System and its exclusive focus on rice and wheat should also be questioned in this affair. Indeed, the introduction of rice - supplied at subsidised prices through the PDS - replacing ragi as main staple had dramatic effects on people’s nutrition. In the Deccan Plateau, the women first welcomed rice into their diet because of its less time-consuming preparation. But within a few years, people began noticing a general faltering in their health. Anemia spread in villages due to unbalanced diets (3).

In areas where high yielding varieties of ragi are grown, like in the Thalli region of Karnataka, the problems have not been so serious. Yet the women have realized that these modern varieties have a less nutritive value than the native ones. One ’ragi ball’ no longer suffices to sustain a worker for the entire day. If we posit that nutritive value is more important than grain weight in terms of ensuring people’s food and nutritional security, then these varieties have not proved adequate. Moreover, many of these modern varieties, which must be bought from shops, can not possibly be cultivated in depleted, very dry or very wet soils.


agricultura, cereal, biodiversidade, estratégia alimentar

, Índia, Ásia, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh


Biodiversité : le vivant en mouvement


In many villages, farmers are unable to cultivate a diversity of native crops for want of seeds. The seeds for local varieties of finger and pearl millets, or pigeonpea are hard to find in some areas. Hence, growing these varieties has ceased to be an option for numerous farmers. But the economic, nutritional and agronomic qualities of mixed cropping has not ceased to be relevant in subsistence agriculture. This erosion of agricultural diversity has prompted a number of organisations to take up conservation work in villages.


1. Navdanya, 1995, The Seed Keepers, The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, New Delhi.

2. International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Annual Report 1994, Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh.

3. Community Grain Fund, 1994, a film produced by Development Perspectives, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.

Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.


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