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Palani from Oorpuram village in his farm where he cultivates horticultural trees mixed with other food crops (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

Palani from Oorpuram village in his farm where he cultivates horticultural trees mixed with other food crops (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

The unseasonal mid-May rains in Kolli hills of Tamil Nadu’s Namakkal district were a pleasant surprise. They promised to break the spell of three dry summers from 2012 to 2014.

But the dry summers are no longer disastrous for the Malayalis – a tribe that has been living there for centuries but are not as well-known as their namesakes in Kerala.

Despite three consecutive years of inadequate rainfall, the spirit of the community living in villages covered by the project run by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) is one of quiet confidence of being able to overcome another dry season if it comes. Their confidence is based on an increasing diversity of crops, improved soil and water management, and strengthened linkages with the market for their produce.

Located at an altitude between 1,100 and 1,300 metres, the hills are the ridges on the 441 Kolli mountain block. They get an average annual rainfall of around 1,400 mm, nearly two-thirds between July and November.

Traditionally, the hills get rain from both Southwest and Northeast monsoons, though the India Meteorological Department’s journal Mausam recently reported that the rainfall pattern was moving from Southwest to Northeast monsoon in Kolli hills.

In a state where the tribal population is at a low 1.1%, Kolli hills stand out as a near-total tribal enclave with the Malayalis constituting 95% of the population. Since the only road to climb the mountain block has 72 hair-pin bends, tourism has not yet reached the hills in a significant way. Farming is the major economic activity, with most of the farmers being small-holders. About 55% of them farm less than one hectare of land, and 30% farm between one and two hectares.

Farmers use 27% of the land in the hills for cultivation, over 86% of which is uplands. Large areas of uplands have been brought under cultivation of tapioca (cassava). Minor millets such as finger millet or ragi (Eleusine coracana), foxtail millet or thinai (Setaria italica) and to some extent little millet or samai (Panicum sumatrense) are still cultivated in rocky areas and uplands. In addition, pineapple is grown on the slopes.

In the valleys, where a flowing stream usually gives greater access to water, the farmers grow high yielding paddy varieties, which have replaced the earlier traditional varieties. There are fruit trees in the valleys – banana, citrus, guava and jackfruit. In the upper and cooler reaches of the hills, pepper vines are grown on silver oak trees, and coffee bushes are grown in the shade.

MSSRF’s initial work was on minor millets, because it directly linked to the nutritional needs of the communities. The immediate benefit of minor millets is that they are high on nutrients, with higher concentrations of calcium, iron, fibre and other micronutrients when compared with the staple cereal rice. Like for many other communities in India, for the Malayalis the share of minor millet in their diet steadily declined in the recent decades, with the easy availability of rice.

Climate smart millet

The other important benefit with the cultivation of minor millets is that they are climate resilient. They grow in regions that have unpredictable rainfall, periods of drought and low-quality rainfall. With weather patterns becoming unpredictable in recent years, and with extreme weather events predicted to become more frequent by the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, minor millet cultivation can create a safety net for the smallholder farmers.

According to E.D.I. Oliver King, MSSRF’s principal scientist for the Kolli hills project, the initial problems with minor millet cultivation were the lack of suitable improved varieties and improved cultivation practices; poor extension system for yield enhancement; lack of specific post-harvest and processing technologies; poorly organised value chains; and inadequate policy support.

“While advocacy for improved policy support is a continuing process, through our research for development work we could innovate effective solutions for the other problems,” said King. “We are working through our 7C approach – chronicling, conservation, cultivation, consumption, collectives, communication and commerce.”

The process started with collecting and characterising the millet diversity in Kolli hills. Traditional climate-smart agricultural practices were documented and strengthened. Creating a network of community seed banks strengthened the availability of good quality seeds. By involving the farmers in participatory varietal selection, the best varieties were selected for cultivation. Instead of the traditional practice of broadcasting seeds, they were row planted and supported with appropriate fertilisation.

The drudgery involved in post-harvest processing of minor millets was one reason that made them unpopular. The processing mills available for the other cereals do not suit the needs of minor millets. In collaboration with partners, MSSRF developed dehusking mills and pulverisers suitable for the needs of the minor millets.

To add value, MSSRF’s team worked with women’s groups to develop a beverage drink and other food products. These were then linked to existing health food shops in towns and cities of Tamil Nadu. Thus with more economic returns, there was a greater incentive to grow the millets.

While MSSRF’s work on minor millets have been ongoing for the past 15 years, in 2010 it started work to diversify the basket of food crops for the farmers. With financial support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), the Foundation started a Wadi project to develop orchards for farmers who have at least one acre of land.

Sinnamuthu from Thuvarapallam village uses the water from the percolation tank (foreground) to irrigate his paddy field (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

Sinnamuthu from Thuvarapallam village uses the water from the percolation tank (foreground) to irrigate his paddy field (Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier)

In 1,000 acres of land owned by 1,000 farm families, the project helped to develop horticultural trees inter-cropped with cereals and other food crops. Thus, in the four to five years that the horticultural crops take to yield fruit, the farmers can continue to earn an income from the food crops.

“With a combination of earning from the food and horticultural crops, the farmers have greater economic stability,” said S Bhuvarahan, assistant general manager for NABARD for Namakkal district. “With climate uncertainty these small-holder farmers face severe financial risk. Our aim is not only to support agriculture for food security but also for economic viability, so that the farmers do not need to migrate in search of employment as farm labour.”

The development of horticultural crops is strengthened with soil conservation works such as building trenches and bunds, and strengthening the water resources through the construction of percolation ponds. Training and capacity building and finding new avenues for income generation, such as developing vermicompost, raising nurseries and vegetable production, further strengthen the diversity of income sources.

“This year I did not migrate out of the village,” said Selvam of Oorpuram. “Last two years both me and my husband had to migrate for work.” For Selvam and her husband Muthan, migration for work is something that they wish to avoid. When the horticultural trees start giving fruits, maybe Muthan too will be able to stay back on their farm.

The unseasonal rains need not be an indication of the monsoon rainfall in the hills this year. Selvam and Muthan have not heard the phrase climate change. But day-to-day weather uncertainties arising out of climate change are very real to them. They only way they can adapt to climate change is by strengthening their hands to deal with these uncertainties.

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