Mountain Grain Madness

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Lakshmee Sharma

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows

The first thing you notice about Mukteshwar in Uttarakhand is the sky. It is clear blue during the day and inky black in the nights, mottled by stars that seem to multiply with every new glance. After all these months, I still haven’t gotten used to the beauty of this place:

While the skies are breathtaking, something closer to ground has kept me very engaged in the five months that I have been here: Millet!

My placement is with Gene Campaign, an organization that works on promoting sustainable agriculture in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. I’m based in Orakhan village, Nainital district.

So many friends have asked me what I actually do here (besides consuming copious amounts of tea and warding off leopards).  The primary focus of my fellowship project with Gene Campaign is to promote millet consumption in Kumaoni villages and create value added products using mountain grains which would eventually be manufactured and marketed by the women farmers of Kumaon. This might seem fairly straightforward to most, but there are many layers to this project.

The Himalayan Range as seen from Kumaon.

In this blog post, I want to introduce you to the mountain grains I will be working with – particularly millet, and their significance.

Mountain Grains – What are those?

The Kumaon region prides itself on being indigenous to many grains high in nutrition and taste. The most popularly consumed grains here are still rice and wheat, however, there are many other grains found here which are much higher in nutrition, availability, and taste. Some of them include, you guessed it, millets!

I know I make millet sound like a cluster of indistinct cereal grains that basically achieve the same thing, but they aren’t. There are many varieties of millet found all over India. The variety of millet I will be focusing on at Gene Campaign is Finger Millet. It’s also called madua, ragi, or nachani.

Ragi or madua, are nutrient packed foods rich in minerals, especially calcium. They are 30 times richer in Calcium than rice and 10 times more fibrous. They are also a natural source of essential amino acids (EAA).  A ragi diet keeps diseases like osteoporosis at bay and could reduce risk of fracture. Ragi is also recommended for lactating mothers to improve milk production. Its high nutrient content makes ragi an ideal food for weaning babies.

EAAs in ragi help repair tissues, control the body’s blood sugar levels, and prevent growth of fat in the liver. Some EAAs are often lacking in a vegetarian diet, adding ragi to this diet would assure beneficial EAA supplement. They also act as natural relaxants and help fight anxiety, insomnia, migraine, and improve skin and hair health.

My new best friend, Finger Millet (Madua).

And guess what? They are gluten free!

Another grain I’ll be working closely on is Amaranth, or ramdana. This ancient Aztec grain is indigenous to parts of America and India. Amaranth is extremely high in calcium, iron and vitamin C. The protein contained in amaranth is of an unusually high quality. It is also rich in other vitamins like A, C, E, K, B5, B6, folate, niacin, and riboflavin. The vitamin rich profile of grain amaranth is beneficial for regulating hormones and reducing menstrual pain, improving digestion, preventing cataract, and improving healthy clear skin. The minerals in amaranth aid detoxification, energy production, strong bones and teeth, improved metabolism, and prevent premature hair loss.

Also, its plumage is quite extraordinary:

Amaranth (Ramdana) splendid in brilliant burgundy.

Gene Campaign has been working to popularize millet consumption and millet-based food products in the Kumaon region, largely working with local farmers. My work with them will involve partaking in this effort by helping to create new millet-based recipes and their consequent manufacturing and production. The goal is to then release it into the Delhi market so that millets may offer a good source of income for the farmers here, particularly women.

It’s definitely a challenging endeavour, but the Gene Campaign team is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to grassroots sustainable agriculture and the learning opportunity this presents is immense. The work combines most of my interests – working in grassroot agricultural development, coming up with recipes and consequently consuming said food products for research purposes.

Most of all, what it offers is an opportunity to do something that I haven’t done before in a place that is geographically and culturally brand new to me (I’m a South Indian girl through and through, imagine life without Dosa and filter coffee). I hope that I can contribute as much to the growth and success of this project (and place) as it has already done to me in the few months that I’ve been here.

About the Author

Lakshmee Sharma graduated with a Master’s in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford and worked with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, before she embarked on her journey as an AIF Clinton Fellow in Uttarakhand. She approaches development from a qualitative anthropological lens. Originally from Bangalore, Lakshmee is excited to observe and engage in development practice in a different region and cultural context.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector landscape to be more efficient and effective.