“You are going to step on land that our forefathers have not stepped on; be careful. These people take simple women from villages and sell them off in big cities,” was the warning to Jaymati Baiga, as she set out to attend a culinary training workshop at the Institute Hotel Management in Bhopal, located nearly 500 km from her Karopani village, which is located atop a hillock in MP’s eastern-most district of Dindori.
However, for Baiga, the journey held the promise of her becoming financially independent, with training to make a wide variety of products, from biscuits to cakes and tarts, using the local millets kodo and kutki.
Baiga was part of the first batch of 24 women selected for the training as part of a scheme by the MP Women and Child Welfare Department. She recalls that she took along a bundle of leaves, to make the plates and bowls she is used to eating in, apprehensive of what she would find in the big city.
In five days, the 35-year-old had learnt to fashion chocolate cookies, cakes and tarts out of kodo and kutki. She says she can’t pick one favourite. “Kodo, kutki are our strength, we like everything made out of them.”
Kodo (scientific name Paspalum scrobiculatum) and kutki (Panicum sumatrense) are staple millets in eastern India, drought-resistant and ideal for cultivation in hilly regions like Dindori. Plus, they are known to have nutritional benefits for those fighting diabetes, cholesterol and hypertension. Over the years though, their production had fallen as they are less profitable compared to crops for which the government gives MSP.
In April 2018, the two millets saw the inkling of a revival when, along with eight other cereals, kodo and kutki were identified as ‘nutri-cereal’ by the Agriculture Ministry. Now, the state government has tied up with the United Nation Development Program (UNDP) under its Aatma Nirbhar Madhya Pradesh initiative to take the kodo, kutki revival programme forward. The scheme has got further impetus due to the return of migrants following Covid-induced job losses.
“The (culinary) workshop is a small step towards training these women to become independent in the true sense. Dindori is being developed as a hub for the procurement of all tribal items, from kodo and kutki to Gondi paintings, which will be sold not only in local markets but also exported under the brand name Andai, meaning Annadaata,” said Additional Chief Secretary, Women and Child Development, Ashok Shah.
In March, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government had also launched a website called Andai to promote and sell tribal produce.
At Dindori, the Tejaswini Rural Women Empowerment Program, initiated by the state government’s Mahila Vikas Ekav Vitta Nigam in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development, has been working on kodo, kutki revival since 2012.
Consequently, production has gone up from 25,190 quintals in 2018-19 to 86,148 quintals in 2020-21, with a corresponding hike in market rates from Rs 18 per kg for kodo and Rs 26 per kg for kutki, to Rs 24 for kodo and Rs 36 for kutki. Enterprising middlemen sell the same outside the state at organic shops for Rs 120 to Rs 150 per kg, while products made from the millets are even available for as high as Rs 230 per kg.
The government did try its hand at selling kodo and kutki cookies and snacks earlier too, even registering modest profits of around Rs 9 lakh in 2019-20. However, it was difficult to ensure quality or taste standards.
“Training was the first step towards teaching these women to produce a wide variety of products along with making these standardised…” said Kumar Saket, head of UNDP Madhya Pradesh.
Baiga is now back in Dindori, with dreams of setting up a bakery of her own. One day, she hopes, she can sell the same in Bhopal, which once seemed a foreign land.