Why Lahari Bai Is Known As India's 'Millet Queen'
Image Credit: Lahari Bai. Courtesy Using Diversity Network, Keystone Foundation.

THE Baiga tribe — an ethnic group residing mainly in Madhya Pradesh — doesn’t believe in ploughing the land for farming; they feel it is akin to wounding Mother Earth, whom they revere. Instead, they practice “bewa”, or shifting cultivation. This is how they grow the millets that form the mainstay of their diets, alongside maize and legumes, all in the same plot. 

The deeply symbiotic relationship between environment and tribe is reflected in the endeavours of 27-year-old Lahari Bai, a Baiga woman who has been lauded as India’s “millet ambassador”. Over roughly three acres of land, and working out of her two-room home in the village of Silpidi, Lahari runs a seed bank and what’s been called a “doomsday vault” — preserving millet varieties against extinction. Lahari is said to have saved no fewer than 150 indigenous millet varieties, through her efforts. In 2022, she reportedly distributed seeds to 350 farmers across 25 villages in her district.

Homegrown, grassroots seed cooperatives are not uncommon in Baigachak — a region covering seven Baiga villages in Madhya Pradesh, including Silpidi. Here, women from the tribe have taken on the mantle of collecting and exchanging a variety of seeds for the bewar. Lahari herself is the secretary of one such co-op, the Sawa Salhar Sanghati Beej Bhandar Samiti Silpidi. As part of its efforts, the Samiti facilitated the cultivation of three millet varieties (mandia, salhar and bajra) across three model plots in 2021. At the end of the exercise, the participating farmers returned six kg of seeds to the Samiti. As of this year, the Samiti has at least eight seed varieties in circulation, including bhursa, katki kang, dongar, kali kutki and finger millets like lal and chawal madia in addition to the original salhar, bajra and kodo.

However, Lahiri’s efforts go beyond supporting revival of the Baiga’s indigenous millets, to conservation, as her peers acknowledge. She began her campaign a decade ago, armed with oral knowledge and know-how about the community’s cultivation and dietary practices gleaned from her grandmother. In one room of her house, bunches of millets are hung to dry from the ceiling; tall clay urns line the walls, the names of the seeds they contain painted on. When Lahari distributes seeds to farmers, they have a straightforward exchange planned: for every 1 kg of seeds she provides, they return 1.5 kg of the same or a different variety of millet during the harvest season. At least 40 other women in the region have taken up Lahiri’s model, inspired by her impact. In addition to millets, they focus on the pulses, oilseeds and vegetable crops that were historically cultivated by the Baiga people.

With encouraging media attention on her campaign, Lahari has also met with G20 delegates to explain her work and the vital role millets have played in the lifestyle of the Baiga tribe. As for her personal preferences among the "mota anaaj", dals and curries made with kodo and kutki, as well as pej — a gruel-like drink — made with kodo, are what her everyday meals comprise.