P.V. Satheesh, the Original Millets Man of India

The founder of Deccan Development Society not only popularised millets but also worked for agro-biodiversity, food sovereignty, women’s empowerment, Dalit rights, social justice and local knowledge systems.

As the world celebrates the International Year of Millets, P.V. Satheesh (77), the original Millets Man of India, breathed his last on Sunday morning, March 19. Periyapatna Venkatasubbaiah Satheesh was a founder of the Deccan Development Society and its executive director. The committed and sustained work that P.V. Satheesh led, along with thousands of Dalit and tribal women farmers, is exemplary and set a high bar.

Born on June 18, 1945 in Mysuru, Satheesh was a graduate of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi, and started out as a journalist. He went on to work as a pioneering TV producer for Doordarshan for nearly two decades. As a development communication expert, Satheesh played an important role in India’s historic SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment) project in the 1970s. Everything that he did for rural development was about putting the farmer first, especially the triply marginalised Dalit woman farmer. His life in the Deccan, after he moved from his native Karnataka to Pastapur, Telangana, reflected his deep love for the people of the region and his respect for their wisdom, knowledge and culture.

Satheesh, his colleagues and tens of thousands of women farmers associated with the Deccan Development Society, pioneered the revival of millets more than three decades ago in the semi-arid villages of Medak district in undivided Andhra Pradesh. Their work inspired many others to appreciate and work on millet cropping systems, rainfed farming, social forestry, Dalit watersheds, community media and importantly, the agency of Dalit women farmers. A discourse and practice was built convincingly on millet cropping systems for regenerative agriculture, reclamation of fallow lands and employment in rural India, for nutrition security and the autonomy and sovereignty of farming communities. Importantly, it was also about millets for social equity, to allow Dalit and tribal women farmers to take a lead. The women’s sangams of DDS and their steadfast adherence to millet cultivation and organic farming led the way nationally in offering demonstrable alternatives to the dominant agricultural paradigm. The path charted by Satheesh and local communities of women was showcased in the Rome Food Summit in 1996. But Satheesh’s work was by no means limited to millets.

Agro-biodiversity, food sovereignty, women’s empowerment, Dalit rights, social justice, local knowledge systems, participatory development, community media, alternative education and the power of collectivisation were all part of the impressive work he led for over four decades.

The women in the region, especially Dalit and tribal women, found a voice and a platform to present to their own communities and to the world their agency in agriculture, that too with rainfed, millets-based cropping systems. The knowledge, the worldviews and the skills that he unlocked inspired numerous others around the world to place their trust in women farmers and in communities.

Satheesh and DDS established a highly localised alternative PDS called the Community Grain Fund, based on millets and not paddy rice. This highly innovative programme was supported by the government through the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, and was appreciated in official evaluation reports. Others are still learning from the work which Satheesh initiated in reviving local seed systems as a critical intervention in reviving local food systems. The Biodiversity Jatharas (or caravans) that move from village to village, reconnecting communities back to nature and their own knowledge and resources, have attracted numerous visitors over the years.

The sangam market or the “Market of the Walkouts” that Satheesh and DDS have set up is something that current day farmer producer organisations need to draw inspiration from. This is about protecting poor producers who also get exploited as consumers, by the creation of rural-rural markets to begin with, the surpluses then being sold to urban markets. The Millets Cafe on the Hyderabad-Bombay Highway was the first of its kind, popularising millets with everyone.

Development communication of the best kind

Importantly, the community media spaces that Satheesh opened up, where illiterate Dalit women could show their perspectives, worldviews, knowledge and work to the world, is development communication of the best kind. What’s more, Satheesh also invested in the next generations, organising even children and drawing them into deep conversations and alternative education, by setting up the Pachha Saale or the Permaculture School. Today, many of these children have evolved into community leaders.

Satheesh also led several national and international networks like the Millet Network of India, South Against Genetic Engineering and AP Coalition in Defence of Diversity. He was also India Coordinator for South Asian Network for Food Ecology and Culture (SANFEC). He was a generous mentor to many young people.

P.V. Satheesh’s love and respect for marginalised Dalit women and the trust that he placed on their leadership, is a lesson to be imbibed by all development workers.

On the personal front, friends remember his great skills in, and passion for cooking. His photography and documentary filmmaking are noteworthy, too. His great generosity could not have been missed by people who walked into his life.

As news of his demise spreads, respectful obituaries are pouring in from academics, activists, NGO workers, journalists, political leaders and others. Satheesh’s life was well-spent, with communities that he loved and supported. There is much to learn from the path he charted for the development ethos, conceptualisation and practice ― both in terms of the actual work that the women associated with DDS achieved for their own socio-economic empowerment, as well as the grassroots-up processes on which the work was based. He will continue to inspire many.

Kavitha Kuruganti is a farm activist.


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