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This article is the eighth in a series highlighting the work of our colleagues around the world to build agroecological practices, science and movements. Agroecology has emerged as a set of practices based on principles that guide how to produce food sustainably, as well as how to manage the social relationships that govern food production, processing, exchange and waste management in a fair manner. This article features an interview with the founder of the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective on their experience working to develop resilient agricultural practices for local food security.

In 2013, we were thrilled when the Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective (TN WC),1 one of our partners in India, won the 5th U.S. Food Sovereignty Prize. The TNWC, a federation of village-level women’s groups, had been set up almost two decades prior to support women who faced gender-based violence.  Most of the women belonged to the lowest castes. I visited the organization in the winter of 2010-2011 and learned the fascinating story of how they veered into agricultural practices and advocacy around food systems.

Their journey began primarily as an effort to meet the food and nutrition needs of the women members of the collective. Their work follows three principles to ensure their food security: 1) empowerment of women; 2) democratic local governance; and 3) resilient agricultural practices towards local food security. Most of the Women’s Collective members are their families’ main bread winners, whether as farmers or agricultural laborers with no access to land. They are unable to make a viable living in the male dominated cash-crop system that depends on chemical inputs.

In the report I wrote after my visit, I found that the Collective soon learned that the “agronomical practices associated with traditional millet2 cultivation in the area were very different from those associated with chemical-input agriculture. For example, traditionally, prior to planting in summertime, they would have ‘attukidai,’ (in exchange for payment in the form of grain, or less commonly, cash, village herders would take their cows or goats to the field for the night. Animal droppings were later ploughed into the field.) The use of farmyard manure and inter-cultivation of different types of millets with different types of pulses had been a common practice, making it a mixed-crop system. Some of these practices still continue in isolated farms, particularly in the case of crops grown for domestic consumption.”

From a gendered analysis on food and nutritional security, the WC leadership determined that they needed to build on this foundation of extensive, traditional knowledge that their members had of millet seeds, its cultivation, processing and preparation. In this effort, they were helped by other organizations such as the Deccan Development Society (DDS),3 which had been advocating for the revival of millet-based farming and food systems as part of adopting agroecologically appropriate farming practices.

During my visit, I learned also of the advocacy network, the Millet Network of India (MINI), which began its work in October 2007. MINI has been extremely effective in putting millets back on the agenda of agriculture nationally and internationally, and over the last decade, several states including Tamil Nadu have launched Millet Missions. TNWC women have been active in that advocacy.

See Exchange

Photo Credit: Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective

I contacted Sheelu, the founder of the Women’s Collective, to learn about their experiences and reflections about the last 10 years since being awarded the U.S. Food Sovereignty Prize.

Shiney: As you know, the United Nations has proclaimed 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYM). Five years earlier, India had declared 2018 as the National Year of Millets. And even before that several states including Tamil Nadu had launched Millet Missions. Reports say that IYM is "aimed at raising awareness of and directing policy attention to the nutritional and health benefits of millet consumption and their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climatic conditions, while also directing policy attention to improving value chain efficiencies.”

Surely TNWC and other members of the Millet Network of India, who have been advocating for the promotion of millet cultivation for more than a decade and a half, must find that the terrain of your work has changed. Perhaps you can start by talking of the concrete policy changes over the last 10 years?

Sheelu: The most important change that I can talk about is the policy change which came up in 2013. The central government after much consideration brought up the Food Security Bill 2013,4 which recommended inclusion of millets in the Public Distribution System (PDS). It talks about the inclusion of 70% of the population in the public distribution system and also allows the general public to have the choice of choosing between rice, wheat and millet, at a nominal rate of rice at 3 rupees, wheat at 2 rupees and millet at 1 rupee per kilogram, (Rs. 1 being less than $0.02 in 2013, and now about $0.012). Following this, many state governments passed food security bill in their assembly and started distribution of millets in the Public Distribution System. Secondly, majority of the states started what is called “Millet Mission” and focused on cultivation of millets. The Millets Mission enabled farmers to take up millet cultivation as the state government started giving incentives to farmers producing millets.

Shiney: Are you satisfied with these changes?

Sheelu: These changes are not very satisfactory, as it is left to the state governments to take a final decision of millet cultivation, procurement, storage and distribution at the public distribution system. But for the rice and wheat, the central government has fixed up Minimum Support Price (MSP) and has a policy also of purchasing these grains and storing it at5 the godowns (storage facility belonging to FCI, the Food Corporation of India) for distribution in the public distribution system. However, for millet no such system exists.6

Besides, the Millets Mission and the production of millets has enabled private actors to get into the market by facilitating the formation of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) and has enabled them to have an easy way of accessing the millet cultivated by farmers. They buy in bulk, and the millets are used by larger companies to produce value-added items like biscuits, cakes and other nutrition mixes for the consumption of upper middle class and for export. Larger companies like Walmart invest in these FPOs. That is taking away the nutritious millet grains from the poor farmers’ plates. These grains were playing a very important role in sustaining health in the poor communities. At the same time, much of the profit made through the value-addition goes to intermediaries and not to the farmers themselves.

Shiney: That is a very important issue you are raising. On the one hand, there is more support for millet cultivation, a hardy crop that is not only climate resilient but also highly nutritious. On the other hand, there is the worry that this nutritious food item is being siphoned away at the cost of local community. How are the women of TN WC responding to this situation?

Sheelu: Interestingly, the women who are cultivating millets in women's collective groups (which are referred to as Kalanjium Women Farmers Association) have access to very limited area of land, and so what they produce is mostly focusing on their own food security at the household level. They produce different millet grains, vegetables, pulses, oil seeds and greens. This ensures biodiversity, and actually protects the health of their family, community, the livestock, environment and soil. It also helps in saving water, and not using chemical fertilizers facilitates natural produce and ensures their health.

Shiney: Do you foresee any other problems for these women in the future?

Sheelu: A very important danger that we foresee, which is of real concern, is in fact the direction of research that all the agriculture universities7 are getting involved in on millet. Particularly, they are bringing out millet hybrid seeds. This would in future impact the traditional millet seeds and would lead to the extinction of these heirloom varieties. TN WC members or women farmers see the need to protect the traditional seed varieties, and they save seeds and exchange seeds among themselves in order to ensure protection and preservation of traditional varieties.

Shiney: I’ve been inspired by the ways the TN WC members share information and innovations in ways that work for their livelihoods, communities and environment. Can you say a bit about how your focus on agroecological practices and food sovereignty connects with the work that you started with — violence against women?

Sheelu: When Women’s Collective started, we organised women based on the issues of their rights, particularly the issues of domestic violence which each and every woman understood very clearly as most of them had been through this in their lifetime. They got organized and empowered and began concentrating on their livelihood options which was affecting their family health very badly. We have also been working with children’s groups for a long time, developing their understanding of issues around gender, caste and environmental concerns. As the next step we formed youth groups, which paved the way for village level Gender Equity Vigilance Committees (GEVC). Unlike the village level women empowerment committees (WEC) of the Women's Collectives, GEVC members are young men and women of the village who are under 40, either studying or working outside the village. With GEVC, the focus is on creating awareness to prevent issues of violence against women and children. These youngsters from farming families, who are food secure, now also address community issues, showing solidarity with broader social and environmental concerns. We do see that their ecological practices not only ensure food security at the household level, but also contribute to the climate-resilient community, which is an answer to today's global problem of climate change. Most of the women farmers have become climate warriors in practice. It further empowers them as leaders in the community. Our focus is on "HEALTHY COMMUNITIES" that are not only physically healthy but also mentally sound; in brief communities that are immune to disease and violence.


1. With more than 1,00,000 Women members spread across 19 districts in Tamil Nadu, Women's Collective (WC) works for the empowerment marginalized women, children and elders, especially in rural areas.

2. Millet is a broad term that covers many varieties from across India: the hardy traditional grain is nutritious, drought-resistant, and easier to grow in the regions with little access to irrigation water.

3. Deccan Development Society (DDS) is an NGO that began their work in the neighboring state of Telangana (then part of unified Andhra Pradesh) almost four decades ago; they began with ecological restoration of utterly degraded agricultural lands of poor farmers. They went on to cofound the Millet Network of India (MINI), based on the experiences of taking “community action for revival of millet-based farming and food systems, placing control over food, seeds, markets and natural resources in to the hands of the poor – especially the women who are from multiple marginalization.”  

4. The National Food Security Act, (NFSA) 2013, also known as Right to food Act, entitles up to 75% of the rural and up to 50% of urban populations to receive subsidized grains under Targeted Public Distribution System. Recently the current govt has announced that it will make the ration free for the target group. This is perceived by experts as a pre-election focused attempt to shore up the support of populations facing unprecedented unemployment rate and inflation.

5.  This lack of parity in policy support for millet consumption through PDS (when compared with that for rice and wheat), despite the widely shared recognition of the multiple benefits of millets, is identified as an issue by other constituencies as well, as is evident from this video from Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network, India.

6. An example of this is the initiative on biofortification of millets, which the government claims is to help address malnutrition among millet cultivating communities.

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