Meet Sharmila Oswal, the Millet Evangelist of India

Meet Sharmila Oswal, the Millet Evangelist of India

Known as India's Millet Evangelist, Sharmila chose her specialisation in agriculture and water in 1995.

Sharmila Oswal has been a part of the millet mission in India for the last 20 years. She has been instrumental in raising awareness about one of India's staple crops that has been recognised on the global stage. Earlier this month, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets.

Meet Sharmila Oswal, the Millet Evangelist of India
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Talking about India's effort to push millets as the choicest nutritional crop amid climate crisis, Sharmila said, "2018 was deemed to be the millet year for India but later, the United Nations accepted India's proposal and therefore, 2023 is now going to be the International Year of Millets."

Millet, which is a group of coarse grains present in the Indian subcontinent for over 5,000 years, has higher medicinal benefits than other grains like wheat and rice, and is a carbon-neutral, climate-friendly and water-friendly crop. It has come a long way as part of the innovation and technology in the agriculture sector.

Working at the nexus of agriculture, water and food security, Sharmila Oswal, who has been training farmers and equipping them in capacity-building for over two decades, spoke about the advantages of millet and why India is propagating this crop.

"Millet grains are fortified, and well-equipped with zinc, ammonite, phosphorus and iron. These seeds cater to the malnourished in rural India as well. It is the best choice for pregnant women, and children lacking nutrition or with anaemia issues. Millets are a great nutritional resource and a supplement for India," she said.

Known as India's Millet Evangelist, Sharmila chose her specialisation in agriculture and water in 1995. Born in Kainad, a village near Alibaug on the Konkan coast, she witnessed first-hand the plight of farmers and their struggles with drought and erratic weather conditions.

"I also saw farmer suicide rates increasing in states like Maharashtra, especially the Vidarbha region. This made me want to be a catalyst or a facilitator for farmers in India so I could create training programs, for those who are downtrodden and aren't aware of the various packages and special schemes launched by the government," she added.

As a chartered environmentalist and an agricultural activist, Sharmila, who has studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in water diplomacy, said that India's journey of millets, right from Lal Bahadur Shastri's Jai Jawan Jai Kisan and Kisan Dhara to UN's 2023 IYM program has had a phenomenal transformation.

Speaking about the agricultural sector's technological advancement in producing millets, Sharmila said, "India is now a part of smart agriculture. There is a huge change in the way farming is being done. If you see, there's organic farming and natural farming and now, there's an emphasis on soil contamination and the propagation of hybrid seeds and non-GMO (genetically modified organism). Besides this, farmers are aware of climate-resilient crops and are now handling apps in different languages to understand and learn better methods of farming. Even drones are being used."

Wheat and rice, which are water-based crops, Sharmila listed the benefits of having millets like bajra and jowar not just in diet but in the advancement of farming, economic growth and revolutionising the health industry.

"There is a taboo on millets when foods like oats and quinoa are being marketed for their health benefits among the new-age generation. Millets have been here for thousands of years. Now, it is mostly associated with a sick person's food. But I think with over 500 startups showing millets to be a part of new-age food, people can slowly shift their focus to agro-commodities like having pizza, pasta, and even noodles, which are millet-based," she said.

Adding that millets can ensure a medicine-free life, Sharmila said, "Millets have the capacity of 100 per cent reversing diabetes and other chronic diseases. After the Covid-19 pandemic, we might witness more situations like this in the future and for that, we need to build immunity. Millets have the lowest glycemic index and provide proper gut health and boost immunity. It is sustainable in nature."

How do millets benefit farmers? Sharmila shared that millet is a "no-drama" crop. "Millets can survive erratic climate and water supplies. Even if there is a drought or sudden fluctuation in temperatures, millet - a regenerative crop - can still be grown. It can even be harvested in poor soil quality as well."

Last week, Union Agricultural Minister Narendra Singh Tomar hosted a special 'millet-only' lunch for the members of Parliament. During the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised the celebration of International Millet Year 2023 and suggested ways to promote nutritional campaigns through millets.

Hoping for the future, Sharmila, who advocates regenerative agricultural practices, said, "In terms of innovation and technology in agriculture, we are much more advanced than other countries. Agriculture and agro-commodities have come a long way in the transformation stages, even in terms of farming techniques and methodologies. Hopefully, this streak will continue, and the new-age generation will understand its importance."

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