Odisha Foundation Day 2024: All About Its Rich Millet Heritage

The cultivation of millets has been at the heart of Odisha’s cultural heritage. Indigenous millets have been cultivated for centuries by the tribal communities of Odisha. These humble grains have a profound cultural significance, playing a vital role in rituals, festivals, and traditional cuisine and they are also nutritionally rich. 

Millets are gluten-free and rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Their low glycemic index makes them ideal for anyone who wants to keep their blood sugar in check. It’s important to note that millets are drought-resistant crops and need minimal water and input, which makes them environmentally sustainable alternatives to water-intensive crops like rice and wheat.

Millet cultivation in Odisha dates back thousands of years, with archaeological evidence suggesting its cultivation during the Neolithic period. Indigenous communities such as the Kandha, Santhal, and Gond have been cultivating millets like ragi (finger millet), kodo (little millet), mandia (foxtail millet), and bajra (pearl millet) for generations. These millets were not only a staple food source but also widely appreciated for their resilience in harsh environmental conditions and nutritional richness.

Not to mention, millets can be environmentally friendly and decarbonise the atmosphere as they help cut atmospheric carbon dioxide and, thus, have a low carbon footprint. Traditional festivals like Nuakhai, a celebration of the new rice harvest, often include rituals where millets are offered to deities as a symbol of prosperity. Moreover, millets feature prominently in the local cuisine, with dishes like mudhi (puffed rice), mandia pitha (foxtail millet pancakes), and kodo-kala bhaja (fried black millet) being cherished delicacies. 

The Underrated Varieties

Despite their cultural and nutritional value, indigenous millets in Odisha were overshadowed by the shift towards cash crops and changing dietary preferences and many indigenous millet varieties were on the verge of extinction.

Recently, researchers from the Central University of Odisha identified some high-yielding local Finger millet varieties cultivated by the tribal areas of Koraput, which promised superior nutritional benefits. Finger millet genotypes like Bhalu, Ladu, Telugu and Bada have proven to be better than the improved hybrid varieties.

These indigenous varieties are rarely grown anywhere else and if properly studied may prove to be hugely beneficial. Last year, the Odisha government formed a committee to release traditional millet varieties in accordance with the standard operating protocols for releasing indigenous millet varieties conserved by tribal farmers for centuries. Known as the ‘Landrace Varietal Release Committee’ (LVRC), this committee is focused on the conservation of traditional millet landraces. 

Bati and Janha are two finger millet varieties steadily rising in demand. They have a bigger grain size and are also sweeter than most millets which are commercially used, such as Sri Chaitanya and Bhairabi. Some strains like Kundra Bati, Jasra, and Jamkoli, is garnering attention within farmer communities and also the government.

India’s proposal at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly in March 2021, to 2023 as the International Year of Millets, was backed by more than 70 countries. The grains have made a mark across the world thanks to their nutritional profile and their low glycemic index which make them them ideal for managing blood sugar levels and promoting heart health, making them a global superfood. Moreover, millets exhibit remarkable resilience in diverse climatic conditions, which makes them pivotal in the face of climate change.