Revival of millets in North East India

The smallholder farmers in NER have revived millets in their cropping systems as well as in their diets. A little support in terms of technical guidance and value addition, and building linkages for marketing has been instrumental in bringing back millets in the food and agriculture systems of Northeast India.

Smallholder farmers practising subsistence agriculture dominate the primarily rain-fed agricultural systems in the North East region in India. The region is known for traditional farming practices such as shifting cultivation, which entails clearing and burning small portions of forest land for cultivation. The region is notable for its production of crops such as rice, maize, millets, pulses, tea, spices, and fruits. The region, which is also characterized by a high level of biodiversity, is also home to many indigenous crop varieties and livestock breeds. The region faces a high risk from natural disasters such as floods, landslides, and earthquakes which adversely impact agriculture. Land degradation, soil erosion, low productivity, poor market linkages, and climate change are additional challenges that the farmers in the region face.

Millets are an important part of the agricultural landscape and dietary culture in Northeast India

Millets are an important part of the agricultural landscape and dietary culture in Northeast India. Finger millet, foxtail millet, buckwheat, pearl millet and Jobs Tears are some of the millet varieties found in North-eastern states. The states of Assam (18.82 kg/hsh/m) and Bihar (18.69 kg/hsh/m) records highest consumption of small millets.  These small-seeded grasses have been cultivated and consumed by indigenous communities in the region for centuries, due to their ability to grow well in challenging and hilly terrain, and their resilience to extreme weather conditions. Traditional fermented foods and beverages occupy a special place in the Himalayas across the North-Eastern states of India due to their nutritive value, taste, health aspects, social, ritual, and cultural importance. Finger millet is the predominant millet crop in the eastern Himalayan region. Foxtail millet and finger millets are also found in most states.

Millets form an integral part of subsistence agriculture in the North East Region (NER) predominated by small farmers. It is primarily used for food and beverages, though their use as fodder and bird feed is also significant. The pattern of millet consumption varies across states in the Northeast and has remained similar or reduced over time. Efforts are underway to promote the cultivation of millets in Northeast India.

Caritas India has been working in the region to revive indigenous wisdom and traditional food system for greater food sovereignty. Since 2013, Caritas India is implementing the Facilitating Agricultural Regeneration Measures (FARM) North East (NE) program in the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. FARM NE is the largest cluster programme of Caritas India reaching out to the smallholders of the region and promoting food security through climate-adaptive traditional agricultural systems, and traditional food systems. The program is designed to be community-led, with smallholder farmers playing a key role in driving positive change.

Caritas India has been actively working in NER and has engaged with various ethnic groups across the seven states for the promotion of sustainable agriculture including millets. To enhance the growth and utilization of millets in India, Caritas India has been emphasising on enhancing food and nutrition security for susceptible populations. Through the promotion of millet cultivation and consumption, Caritas India has been striving to revive the traditional food system, which is nutritious, sustainable, and robust.

Millets have been a part of traditional agriculture in NER, but their use as a staple food has been limited, as the majority of the population are primarily rice eaters. During the 2016-17 growing season, finger millets were promoted for the first time in Ri Bhoi district of Meghalaya. To encourage wider adoption, Caritas India emphasized on the use of millets and raised awareness on the health advantages of millet and advocated for their increased consumption.

The PLD Approach

Women understand the potential of millets to earn extra income through processing and marketing

The program is based on the core principle of People-Led Development approach that prioritizes the participation of local communities and individuals in the planning and implementation of development initiatives. It seeks to empower people to take an active role in their own development and recognizes them as the best source of knowledge about their needs and circumstances. The approach aims to shift power and decision-making to the community and build partnerships between communities, civil society organizations, and government entities.

FARM programme was initiated to revive traditional and cultural food practices for sovereignty through people’s participation and collective decision-making. Farmers were collectivised and brought together in community and farmers groups to discuss their common issues pertaining to their lives, livelihood, income, and food security. Community mobilizations was carried out by the FARM in programme villages and people were made aware of the benefits of millets to human health, the economy, and the environment. This has created awareness and ownership of their collective decisions.

The programme adopted a dual approach in building capacities of the farmers on millet cultivation. FARM worked on upscaling traditional agricultural practices and a perfect mix of traditional and scientific approaches were adopted to facilitate trainings from the Department of Agriculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) on one side and organising hands-on training through Lead farmers based on their wisdom and practices inherited from their ancestors. Overall, it was a blending of science with tradition. Local resource persons were identified out of these trained farmers to enable them to help and train their communities in millet cultivation.

The programme prioritised fulfilling the nutrition and food  requirements of the family first. Additional produce was normally sold in the local market. To help communities gain returns to scale, communities were sensitized to pool their produce and sell. Several small shops were created in the programme areas where people could sell their produce.

Additionally, the farmers were provided with support in the form of grinding and packaging machines to aid in processing.

Inspiring case

Mr. Lang Pyrtuh, a 68-year-old farmer from Samanong village in West Jaintia Hills District of Meghalaya State, is a strong proponent of millet cultivation. Lang laments the decline in millet cultivation over the past 27 years, which has been replaced by rice as a staple grain. The introduction of cash crops like sesame and broom, which offer higher profits than millet, has contributed to this decline according to Lang. Additionally, the supply of the Public Distribution System (PDS), which includes only rice, wheat, and sugar, has resulted in a change in food habits, with people becoming more reliant on external food products.

In response to this challenging situation, Jaintia Hills Development Society (JHDS),  with support from Caritas India under FARM NE, took up initiative to address the decline in millet farming. Meetings were organized with farmers to discuss the importance of millet cultivation and its relevance. Krishi Vigyan Kendra, West Jaintia Hills District is  providing support to train entrepreneurs in agri-processing from millets.

The intervention has already shown positive results, with 10 families joining the effort to cultivate millet in 2019. It is expected that more families will join in the future, promoting farmer-to-farmer and community-to-community exchanges to bring neighbouring villages and the entire district under millet cultivation.

Caritas India’s support to its partner organization JHDS, has resulted in an increase in the number of families cultivating millets in Samanong village to 51. The village grows two varieties of finger millets, commonly known as Kre Lieh (white millet) and Kre Iong (black millet). The community is convinced of the long-term sustainability of millet cultivation and its potential to earn extra income through processing, packaging, and marketing.

FARM programme has been instrumental in reviving millet cultivation in the community and promoting the idea of food sovereignty, which is crucial for the region’s future. Similar cases have been reported in other parts of Meghalaya, Assam, and Manipur and Nagaland.


Successful millet cultivation practices were adopted by farmers. Seed exchanges helped in wider adoption and upscaling. Community mobilization also helped in creating market linkages for millets by involving local buyers. Access to processing machinery helped farmers to add value to their produce which ensured better marketing options. Value-added products such as cakes and powder made from millet have become popular.

FARM program has successfully promoted millets in 15 districts across five states in the NER in less than 2 years’ time. Approximately 1,500 more smallholder farmers in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, and Nagaland are now growing various types of millets on 3-5 acres of land per household.

Awareness and sensitization sessions have been popularising millets among the farming community. Traditional seed banks started storing millet seeds as well. The success in the field has created a multiplier effect in adoption. Millet seed exchange events organised under the FARM programme at local and state level, accelerated its adoption rates in geographically identical areas.


The FARM program’s people-led approach to reviving millets in the NER is showing promising outcomes. By supporting farmers and promoting sustainable agriculture, this initiative not only increased the popularity of millets as a nutritious food source but also enhanced the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and preserved traditional farming methods. The People-Led Development approach has enabled communities to make informed decisions about their food security, considering what works best for them. This initiative has also resulted in maintaining biodiversity while promoting healthy ecosystems. The revival of millets has brought back the cultural food practices within ethnic communities, demonstrating the power of people-led interventions in driving positive change in the society.


Prabal Sen, Patrick Hansda, Pradipta Kishore Chand and Haridas VR

Prabal sen

Program Associate

Caritas India

CBCI Centre, Ashok Place,

Opposite Gole Dak Khana,

New Delhi – 110 001, India





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