As the mist lifted on Bangalore on the morning of December 15th and most of us were stretching ourselves awake, 24 people were already up and well into their day. These men and women are part of the Mera Terah Run (MTR), a collective that builds awareness and raises funds for social causes through half-marathons on 13 consecutive days in relevant areas.
MTR's third edition, titled Miles for Millets, is dedicated to reviving millets which are steadily losing their position in Indian diets, now dominated by paddy and wheat. The runners will make their way through Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh over the next 13 days, meeting and interacting with local communities to raise awareness about millets and their consumption.
Eartha spoke to Dwijendranath (Dwiji) Guru, expert in sustainable agriculture, passionate millet revivalist, and advisor to the MTR 2016 team.
Eartha: Why did MTR 2016 choose to focus on millets?
Dwiji: Millets are fast disappearing from Indian diets and so is knowledge about their benefits. Promoting millets through a running programme was a natural choice since good nutrition and adequate exercise are essential for good health. The organisers of the run wish to raise awareness about millets and runners will, across the 13 days, address local communities about the value of including millets in our meals.
Eartha: What are the areas the run focuses on?
Dwiji: The main goal of MTR is to raise the status of millets not just in large metros like Bangalore, but in smaller towns and villages where they are losing out to paddy and wheat-based foods.
It will focus on the ecological, economic, and nutritional benefits of millets. Millets are very hardy crops that grow even in extreme conditions with little or no inputs and are known to be the last-standing crops in drought situations. Traditionally, millets were grown and eaten by communities across India but with paddy and wheat becoming aspirational foods, millets are being marginalised and farmers growing them are seeing lower and lower returns.
Unpolished millets are nutritional powerhouses packed with an array of nutrients. Thus, their revival and promotion in the Indian diet is key to achieving nutrition security and a sustainable food system. The run plans to use millets as a gateway to address larger questions around our food systems and seek sustainable alternatives. We will also talk about how to identify different millets and the benefits of unpolished over polished varieties.
E: What is the significance of the route of the MTR?
D: We will halt in places in South and Central India that have a history of using millets, grow and process millets, and where local entities work to promote their production and consumption. We are not limiting ourselves to places where there is already large scale production and consumption of good quality millets but also going into regions where millets are not yet popular and readily accessible. For example, millets were a big part of traditional diets in Jabalpur and Raipur, but they are now restricted to Adivasi communities from whose diets too they are quickly disappearing.
E: Who is the runners’ audience and how do you plan to reach out to them?
D: MTR has partnered with local social enterprises and NGOs working at the community level in 13 cities and nearby towns and villages to promote millet cultivation, processing, and consumption. With the help of our on-ground partners, we will organise millet promotion events and try to gain access to a diverse audience ranging from farmers, agro-processors, and media to runners’ clubs, students, and civil society groups.
E: Will the run address both the demand and supply aspects of millet promotion?
D: Making millets aspirational is mainly a demand-side issue. It is about going out into different communities, talking to people about millets as a superfood, and creating a demand for them. The runners will talk about the benefits they have seen of eating millets and engage in discussions to spread awareness about including millets in our daily diets.
There is already a sufficient supply of millets but we need more of the right kind of nutrient-rich millets that are closer to their natural form rather than those that are just carbohydrate-rich and stripped of nutrients. As people begin to ask for and buy good quality millets, the supply-side will catch up.
E. What are you looking forward to from the run?
D: Personally, I am interested in promoting decentralised, small scale, mechanised millet processing and spreading awareness about it in places like Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Chattisgarh where not much mechanised processing of millets is done. Locally processing millets allows producers to earn more from their sale. Outside the southern states, millets are mostly processed domestically or unprocessed millets are exported out of the local areas to bigger centres where they are processed and polished and lose their nutrition.
Food is something that is very close to people’s hearts and it is not possible to replace paddy and wheat with millets overnight or by employing a top-down approach. We hope that meeting and talking to people using this feet-on-the-street approach will expand our own perceptions and those of others about millets and their role in food, nutrition, and environmental security.
E: How will what has been achieved during the run be sustained after it is over?
D: We will continue supporting the efforts of our local partner organisations in their work with millet promotion even after the MTR. For this purpose, we have developed a training manual with support from Dhan Foundation which is freely downloadable online. We have also made this available to our partner organisations. We are also trying to build a network of individuals and organisations interested in millets and millet processing to expand the scope and impact of our work.
Read more about the Miles for Millets campaign here.
Download the millet booklet here.
Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.