Major Challenges in Achieving Sustainable Agriculture in India: The Case of Kolli Hills

Major Challenges in Achieving Sustainable Agriculture in India: The Case of Kolli Hills

My project is situated in Kollimalai, a captivating region nestled within the Eastern Ghats, elevated at 1300 meters above sea level in the Namakkal District of Tamil Nadu. This picturesque locale is located approximately 45 kilometers away from the bustling Namakkal Bus Stand.

Kolli Hills are renowned for their awe-inspiring beauty, characterized by a winding road with an impressive 70 continuous hairpin bends and breathtaking landscapes. Extending over a vast expanse, these hills span 29 kilometers from north to south and 19 kilometers from east to west. The Kolli Hills boast a rich and diverse ecosystem that encompasses various natural wonders.

Within the entirety of this geographical marvel, 44% is designated as a reserve forest, underscoring the region's commitment to nature preservation. Furthermore, 51.6% of the area is deemed suitable for cultivation, providing a foundation for the agricultural endeavors of the local community. The remaining 5% is inhabited, serving as the heart of this vibrant region.

The name "Kolli Malai" pays homage to Goddess Etukkai Amman, also known as Kollipavai, who is revered as the guardian and protector of these hills with her divine presence. Her watchful eye symbolizes the spiritual connection that permeates this land.

The rich history and cultural significance of the Kolli Hills are deeply embedded in classical Tamil literary works. These timeless texts, including Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Purananuru, and Akananuru, have chronicled the tales and traditions that have shaped this region for generations. It's a testament to the enduring heritage that defines Kolli Hills.

Around 200 A.D., Kolli Hills witnessed the rule of Valvil Ori, a chapter in its history that contributed to its unique identity and cultural heritage. His legacy echoes through the ages, adding depth to the tapestry of this captivating land.

Kolli hills people
Rituals of kolli peoples

The Administrative Divisions of Kolli Hills

Kolli Hills, a region of rich cultural and natural diversity, is administratively divided into 14 gram panchayats, each with its unique identity and characteristics. These panchayats are as follows:

  • Alathur nadu
  • Ariyur nadu
  • Bail nadu
  • Chittoor nadu
  • Devannur nadu
  • Edapuli nadu
  • Gunduni nadu
  • Gundur nadu
  • Perakkarai nadu
  • Selur nadu
  • Thinnanur nadu
  • Thirupuli nadu
  • Valappur nadu

Within these 14 gram panchayats, a total of 305 villages are nestled, forming the heart and soul of Kolli Hills. Furthermore, the region boasts 16 revenue villages, adding to its administrative landscape.

Kolli Hills is known not just for its vibrant communities but also for its natural beauty and ecological significance. Spread across the region, there are 14 reserve forests, each contributing to the preservation of the unique flora and fauna that call Kolli Hills home.

According to the 2011 census, the Kolli Hills are inhabited by a population of 40,479 individuals, consisting of 38,678 Malayālis Tribes and 1,133 Scheduled Caste members, with 668 others. Among this population, 20,862 are men, and 19,617 are women. A noteworthy aspect is the literacy rate, with a total of 21,073 residents being literate, including 12,240 men and 8,833 women.

A significant portion of the Kolli Hills population is rooted in the Malayali community, known for their unique history and migration. Originally hailing from Kanchipuram, these Malayalis ventured into the Kolli Hills during the 16th century, embarking on a journey that would define their presence in the region for generations to come.

The history of the Malayali community in Kolli Hills is shrouded in legend and folklore. It is said that three brothers from Kanchipuram, accompanied by their loyal dogs, set off on a hunting expedition into the wilderness. Unexpectedly, they found themselves caught in a relentless rainstorm, unable to return home for three days. In the meantime, their faithful dogs managed to make their way back.

Tragically, upon discovering their dogs' return without their masters, the wives of the three brothers, believing them to be dead, took their own lives on a funeral pyre. When the brothers finally made it back, they were devastated by the news of their wives' tragic fate.

Ostracized from their community due to the funeral rites performed for them, the brothers were left with no choice but to seek a new life elsewhere. The eldest brother married a girl from the Kaikkola community and settled in the Kalvarayan Hills, known as Periya Malai. The second brother married a girl from the Vettuva community and established himself in Pachaimalai. The youngest brother, in turn, married a girl from the Devandra community and started anew in the Kolli Hills. Over time, their descendants came to be known as Peria Malayalis, Pachai Malayalis, and Kolli Malayalis, each contributing to the vibrant tapestry of the region's culture and history.

cultural festival in school
Children's playing in school

Changing Food Habits in Kolli Hills: From Millets to Rice and Beyond

Over the past quarter-century, the dietary landscape of Kolli Hills has witnessed a significant transformation, reflecting shifts in food preferences and availability. The traditional grains that once formed the core of the local diet have given way to newer staples, illustrating the evolving food habits in Kolli Hills.

Traditional Grains: The Foundation of the Past

Until a mere 25 years ago, the people of Kolli Hills predominantly relied on traditional grains for their sustenance. Varieties such as Italian Millet, Poor man's Millets, Bulrush Millet, Common Millet, and Ragi held a special place in the local cuisine. These grains were not only considered safe for consumption but also aligned with eco-friendly principles. Their ready availability made them integral to the daily meals of the community.

The Rise of Rice: A New Staple Emerges

In recent years, rice has emerged as the primary staple food in Kolli Hills, marking a significant departure from the traditional grains. While some areas, such as Alathur nadu and Gunduni nadu, continue to embrace millets in their diets, the majority of Kolli Hills residents have shifted their culinary focus towards rice-based dishes.

Diverse Culinary Palette: Traditional and Contemporary

The contemporary food habits of Kolli Hills residents reveal a diverse culinary palette. Their diets now encompass a wide range of dishes, both traditional and modern. From dhal, Sambar, and Rasam to cooked rice, Idli, Parotta, Pongal, Idiyappam, Poori, and Dosa, the variety of choices is extensive. Moreover, the inclusion of over forty green leafy vegetables adds not only nutritional richness but also a burst of flavors to their meals.

Special Occasions and Indulgences

While daily life in Kolli Hills revolves around the staple diet, special occasions call for more indulgent choices. On such momentsous events, black tea and coffee take center stage, offering a comforting and aromatic respite. Additionally, the culinary repertoire expands to include delicacies like raw rice, mutton, chicken, and pork, providing a treat for the taste buds.

This transformation in dietary preferences reflects the dynamic nature of food habits in Kolli Hills, where tradition and modernity coexist harmoniously. The evolution from millets to rice and the integration of diverse culinary choices embody the adaptability and richness of the local food culture, reflecting the ever-changing tapestry of life in Kolli Hills.

famous dish of kolli hills
food served on banana leaves

Agricultural Diversity in Kolli Hills: Nurturing Farming Traditions

The livelihood of the people in Kolli Hills is intricately woven with agriculture, making it the backbone of their economy. Unlike some tourist-centric regions, Kolli Hills predominantly relies on farm-based activities for sustenance and livelihoods. The agricultural landscape in Kolli Hills is as diverse as it is rich, reflecting a unique blend of traditions and practices that define the region.

Regional Terrain Distinctions

Kolli Hills can be geographically divided into two distinct parts: the north and the south. These divisions are not merely geographical but significantly influence the agricultural practices of the region. The northern part, characterized by relatively flat terrain, is primarily dedicated to the cultivation of paddy. In contrast, the southern part of the hills showcases a different agricultural landscape, where black pepper and clove cultivation take center stage.

A Tapestry of Farm-Based Activities

The agricultural tapestry in Kolli Hills is characterized by a wide array of farm-based activities that contribute to the region's livelihoods. Among the prominent agricultural pursuits are the cultivation of black pepper, coffee, various millet varieties, honey production, and spice cultivation. These activities not only sustain local communities but also contribute to the region's unique agricultural heritage.

A Blend of Staples and Specialty Crops

While farm-based activities thrive in Kolli Hills, staples like rice remain a common dietary inclusion. However, the region's agricultural diversity extends beyond staples. Tapioca, considered akin to a fruit crop, finds its place in local farming practices. Orchard farming is also visible, with crops such as cassava, pineapple, banana, pumpkin, pomegranate, avocado, and jackfruit flourishing amidst the hills.

Seasonal Vegetables and Livestock

To further enrich their agricultural pursuits, the people of Kolli Hills cultivate seasonal vegetables, adding variety and nutritional value to their diets. These vegetables, including tomatoes and others, are nurtured with care and contribute to the local food ecosystem.

Also read: Empowering Rural Women Entrepreneurs: Cultivating Change in Jawhar Farms

Livestock Rearing: A Unique Aspect

Remarkably, a significant number of households in the region rear livestock, including rare chickens, goats, pigs, cows, and some even have ducks. The reasons behind this livestock rearing practice, whether linked with marketing plans or simply for household consumption, remain intriguing and warrant further exploration.

Amidst this diverse agricultural landscape, Kolli Hills grapples with unique Challenges in agriculture in India. These challenges are as diverse as the agricultural practices themselves, encompassing issues related to infrastructure, marketing, and sustainability. Nevertheless, the rich farming traditions and the deep-rooted connection of the community to their land continue to shape and nurture the unique agricultural diversity of Kolli Hills.

Farming in india
cliff hanger

Addressing Key Agricultural Challenges in Kolli Hills

Kolli Hills, with its stunning landscapes and agricultural richness, presents a unique set of challenges that affect both local farmers and contribute to broader Challenges in agriculture in India. These challenges encompass various facets of agricultural practices and marketing in the region.

1. Lack of Storage Facilities

One of the primary challenges faced by farmers in Kolli Hills is the absence of adequate storage facilities. This limitation severely impacts the ability to store surplus produce and preserve it for extended periods. As a consequence, the region grapples with challenges in agricultural marketing, hindering the farmers' capacity to efficiently distribute their goods to larger markets.

2. Need for Drying Facilities

Another significant challenge revolves around the absence of proper drying facilities. This issue is especially critical for crops like black pepper, which require thorough drying to enhance their shelf life and maintain their quality. The insufficient drying infrastructure further compounds the Challenges in agriculture in India, affecting the overall agricultural output in Kolli Hills.

3. Connectivity Issues

Poor connectivity, particularly to the Salem Market, poses a substantial hurdle for farmers in Kolli Hills. The lack of reliable transportation options hampers the efficient movement of agricultural produce to larger markets. This limitation not only limits access to better economic opportunities but also exacerbates the challenges in agricultural marketing that local farmers face.

4. Local Product Processing

To add value to local agricultural products, there is a pressing need to establish processing units in the region. These processing units can be instrumental in creating ready-to-eat products and other value-added items, which have the potential to be more lucrative in the market. By addressing both local and broader Challenges in agriculture in India, these units can significantly enhance the economic prospects of Kolli Hills' agricultural output.

5. Marketing Challenges

Marketing locally produced goods can be a significant challenge, often requiring the development of effective marketing strategies and channels to reach a wider audience. The promotion of products from Kolli Hills necessitates innovative approaches to overcome the challenges in agricultural marketing. Finding ways to bridge the gap between producers and consumers is vital to unlock the region's agricultural potential.

Enhancing Agriculture in Kolli Hills: MSSRF's Impactful Initiatives

MSSRF (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) has embarked on a series of impactful initiatives in the Kolli Hills region, aiming to tackle the multifaceted Challenges in agriculture in India. These endeavors are not only enhancing agricultural sustainability but also addressing broader issues related to nutrition, livelihoods, and community development.

Multi-Story Mixed Farming: Nurturing Organic Practices

One of the key initiatives spearheaded by MSSRF involves multi-story mixed farming, an approach that encompasses organic farming practices over a vast expanse of 200 hectares. This holistic approach includes activities such as planting, weeding, fertilization, and irrigation, all geared towards enhancing agricultural sustainability in the region. By implementing these practices, MSSRF is not only helping to improve local farming methods but also contributing to the broader vision of addressing agricultural challenges in India.

Fruit Tree Distribution: Boosting Nutrition and Livelihoods

MSSRF's commitment to the well-being of the Kolli Hills community is further exemplified by the distribution of thousands of fruit trees and nutritious species saplings. This initiative has had a direct and positive impact on 500 farm families, fostering improved nutrition and livelihoods among the local population. It serves as a testament to MSSRF's dedication to addressing the nutritional challenges prevalent in Indian agriculture.

Promoting Millet-Based Farming: A Path to Prosperity

Millet-based farming has been promoted as a means to increase both income and nutrition among tribal farm families in the Kolli Hills. This initiative aligns seamlessly with the broader goals of addressing Challenges in agriculture in India, particularly those related to food security and crop diversity. By encouraging millet cultivation, MSSRF is actively contributing to a more resilient and nutritious agricultural landscape.

Soil Conservation and Water Resource Development: Protecting the Land

Recognizing the critical importance of soil conservation and water resource development, MSSRF has undertaken extensive efforts. This includes the construction of bunds and trenches across major crops, covering an impressive 250 acres. These measures not only safeguard the land but also contribute to the sustainability of agricultural practices in the region.

Empowering Women and Building Communities

MSSRF's interventions in Kolli Hills extend beyond agriculture to encompass women's health and institutional development. A robust emphasis on empowering women and the formation of producer groups involving 583 farmers has been instrumental in fostering strong, resilient communities.

Capacity Building for Sustainable Farming

Capacity building is at the core of MSSRF's efforts in Kolli Hills. The foundation has conducted 16 training programs spanning 87 days, equipping 1,056 tribal farmers with the knowledge and skills needed for sustainable farming practices. These initiatives are pivotal in advancing the region's agricultural practices.

NABARD's Support and the Project "Jiva"

In a significant development, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has stepped in to support the cause. NABARD's backing has led to the initiation of the project "Jiva," further fortifying the collective efforts to address Challenges in agriculture in India.

MSSRF's intervention in Kolli Hills is a holistic approach aimed at advancing sustainable agriculture, nutrition, soil and water conservation, and empowering women. These initiatives collectively contribute to enhancing the well-being of tribal farming communities and serve as a model for addressing the complex challenges faced by Indian agriculture.

Also read: Reduce School Dropouts in India: Causes and Modern Solutions

meeting in kolli hills
Event in kolli hills

Introducing the Kolli Hills Natural Food Tribal Market

Nestled in the heart of the picturesque Kolli Hills region, the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop has been a beacon of sustainable practices and community development since its establishment in 2009. This remarkable initiative is driven by the Valvil Ori Self-Help Groups and plays a pivotal role in the conservation, cultivation, consumption, and marketing of locally produced goods.

A Diverse Array of Locally Sourced Products

Managed by the Valvil Ori Self-Help Group, this unique natural food shop offers a diverse array of products sourced directly from local farmers. These farmers contribute their organic produce, including coffee, bananas, peppers, cardamom, guava, jackfruit, cloves, lemons, pineapples, honey, and more. In fact, the shop proudly showcases an impressive collection of 24 different types of local products, making it a hub for community-supported agriculture.

Value-Added Offerings and Millet Processing

What sets this natural food shop apart is its deep-rooted connection to the Valavanthi Nadu Millets Dehusking and Flour Mills. Here, millets are meticulously processed to create a range of value-added products, including millet laddu and ragi malt. The shop offers a variety of millet products such as finger millet flour, foxtail millet, little millet, barnyard millet, kodo millet, pearl millet, ragi malt, samai upma mix, thinai payasam, and more. This commitment to value addition and local sustainability resonates throughout the community.

Empowering Millet Farmers

To further strengthen and expand the impact of this initiative, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) played a pivotal role in the formation of the Farmers' Producer Company known as "Kolli Hill Agri-Bioresource Producer Company Limited (KHABPCol)" in 2016. With generous support from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), this cooperative platform empowers millet farmers in the region. This initiative is particularly significant as it provides opportunities for growth and formal education to farmers who have historically faced limited access to such resources.

A Testament to Community Dedication

The Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop is not just a place to purchase local goods; it's a testament to the community's unwavering dedication to sustainable living, economic empowerment, and the preservation of their rich agricultural heritage. It stands as a shining example of how local initiatives can address both economic and ecological challenges while fostering a sense of community pride and resilience in the face of modernization.

Farming mechanism
Green house in kolli

Understanding the Challenges Faced by Farmers and the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop

The Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop, which once thrived with strong footfall and profits, encountered significant challenges faced by farmers and local businesses after 2014. The primary reason for this decline can be attributed to the development of new roads leading to Solakkadu, the Aagaya Gangai waterfalls, and the Arapaleeswarar temple. These newly established routes diverted customer traffic away from the Semmedu Bus Stand, where the mart is situated, resulting in a noticeable drop in sales and profitability for the Valvil Ori Self-Help Group.

Furthermore, several crucial aspects of the mart's operations have contributed to its struggles:

1. Outdated Product Packaging and Limited Advertising: The shop's outdated product packaging and limited advertising have hindered its ability to attract and retain customers.

2. Need for Structural Renovation: The physical structure and layout of the shop have become outdated and are in need of renovation to create a more appealing and customer-friendly shopping environment.

To address these multifaceted challenges faced by farmers and the business, there is a pressing need to introduce modernization measures:

1. Shop Renovation: Renovating the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop is essential not only to refresh its appearance but also to implement features like prominent product displays, informative materials for customers, and recipe cards that inspire and educate shoppers about the local produce.

2. Introduction of a Mobile Shop: Introducing a mobile shop that can roam near tourist hotspots will help capture potential customers who may not visit the mart directly. This strategic move has the potential to significantly boost sales and ensure that the shop's products reach a wider audience.

The Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop faces a multifaceted challenge, encompassing declining footfall due to changed traffic patterns, outdated marketing and presentation, and the need for structural rejuvenation. By addressing these issues and embracing modernization efforts, the shop aims to regain its prominence and better serve both the local community and tourists visiting this enchanting region.

Also read: Embracing the Diversity in Rural Areas: Challenges and Excitement

building shop in kolli hills
farming shop in kolli hills

Together Setting Goals and Finding Solutions

Goal 1: Increase Customer Footfall at the Natural Food Shop

Result: We have successfully increased customer footfall at the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop through targeted efforts and strategic enhancements. Our initiatives have created an appealing and welcoming environment within the shop. To achieve this, we initiated comprehensive interior improvement work with a specific focus on enhancing aesthetics through renovation.

Goal 2: Create a Strong Identity for the Natural Food Shop Product

Result: We have designed new product packaging that has not only improved the presentation of our products but also contributed to our branding efforts. We are also planning to introduce recipe cards, providing valuable content to our customers and further reinforcing our brand.

Goal 3: Renovate the Shop's Interior for Aesthetic Appeal

Result: The interior renovation of the shop has been completed. An attractive mural painting project in front of the shop has been created to draw the attention of passers-by and potential customers. Racks have also been installed to transform the shop's aesthetics, creating a welcoming and appealing shopping environment for our customers.

Goal 4: Conduct Promotional Stalls near Arappaleeswarar Kevil

Result: We have secured a loan of Rs. 5 lakh from NABARD, which will be instrumental in funding our expansion efforts. In the coming month, we're launching a mobile shop on wheels, strategically positioned at tourist hotspots around Kolli Hills, maximizing our reach and impact. We have also conducted promotional stalls near the Arappaleeswarar Kevil twice a week, significantly contributing to increased sales and heightened brand awareness among tourists and visitors to the temple.

Goal 5: Diversify the Product Range and Update the Shop's Design

Result: We have expanded our product range to offer more choices to our customers. Additionally, we are planning to offer convenient ready-to-eat food options right in front of the shop to meet the demands of busy customers. With the achievement of earlier objectives, we have updated the shop's design to ensure it remains appealing and aligned with the preferences of our growing customer base.

Our project has made substantial progress in achieving its objectives, leading to increased customer footfall, enhanced branding, improved shop aesthetics, successful promotional activities, and a more diversified product range. These accomplishments have not only revitalized the Kolli Hills Natural Food Shop but also strengthened its position as a prominent destination near the Kolli Hills tourist destination.

ignoration of new shop
setting up new shop

Arpit Kumar