The state government has launched several policies to increase cultivation and consumption of millets in the recent years.But Dr P Devasenapathy, head, Agronomy , at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University says it is difficult for farmers who have practice and experience in growing paddy for years,to change cropping pattern, unless the situation is dire. “Faced with water scarcity , many farmers in the recent years have dug borewells. But if the water supply dips further, wherever possible, farmers should switch to alternative crops such as vegetables, maize, millets,” he adds.
Dr P Parasuraman, who heads TNAU’s Centre of Excellence for Millets, says there are several ongoing studies on increasing cultivation of alternative grains and government support to improve processing facilities is gaining momentum. “If the rains fail, cultivating paddy is a problem. But if there are good rains and water is released in the Cauvery delta, there is no other choice but to go in for paddy cultivation,” he says. He, however, adds that besides farmers in the Cauvery delta (Tiruvarur, Nagapattinam), others in new delta areas (parts of Thanjavur, Trichy and Pudukottai), have been growing alternative crops such as cotton, oilseeds, sunflower, groundnuts, pulses, and millets. “Awareness is high and farmers are ready to switch but traders are not giving a good price”, he rues.
A study by researchers from the Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, in Theni revealed that farmers may have to switch to alternative cropping patterns to manage groundwater resources better and reduce the dependence on water-intensive paddy . Researchers studied the use of groundwater and surface water in agriculture from 2006 to 2012 and concluded that groundwater has been over-exploited in many parts of the state since 1996 due to subsidised power schemes, especially in the years when rainfall was low.
Groundwater levels are decreasing across the state, says Dr N K Ambujam, director, Centre for Water Resources, Anna University adding that the current rate of pumping of water is unsustainable. The study noted that farmers prefer to grow paddy as rice is the staple food in the state. Paddy, a water-intensive crop, was grown initially for one season, but availability of free electricity led to farmers growing it twice a year.
For sustainable use of groundwater, the study concluded that the total discharge required for the entire area under cultivation in a block (10 to 20 villages) should be less than 4,000 cubic metre a day (compared to 9,000 cubic metre/day before optimisation).
“Based on discussions with farmers, we came out with a set of alternate crop ping patterns, involving fruits, vegetables, millets and maize for the farmers to follow. It would ensure that their pumping is limited to 4,000 cubic metre which is sustainable,” Ambujam says.
Value-added products are key to promoting consumption of millets, says P Devasenapathy . “You need to invest in good post-harvest technology and value addition to create products that appeal to consumers,” he says.
Nutrition is an added advantage of alternative cropping pattern. Dr Bhuvaneshwari Shankar, group chief dietician at Apollo Hospitals, says that millets are high in protein and fibre which provide early satiety which in turn helps in cutting down on calories. “Having optimum amounts of calories is beneficial to avoid obesity-induced metabolic disorders,” she adds. Fruits and vegetables on the other hand are rich in fibre and vitamins and low in calories. “They also enhance satiety and help cut down calorie intake which helps in avoiding obesity .”