India needs a 'milletary' approach to address malnutrition and water scarcity

Millets are often undermined as meals in India. Image courtesy New18 Hindi

Dr Khadar Vali is one of the many ‘unsung heroes’ in the list of Padma Shri awardees this year. Though the agricultural scientist is referred to as India’s Millet Man, both he and the cause that he espouses—Siridhanya or ‘positive millets’—remain relatively under-appreciated for decades. The combination of five millets he promotes has proven nutritional and healing properties but how many Indians today know about the benefits of this cereal?

Foreign superfoods like quinoa and chia seeds are now being cultivated in India thanks to increasing demand but ragi dosas and bajra rotis are still regional exceptions rather than the rule in most middle-class Indian homes. Interestingly, it has been noticed that Indian herbivores do not target chia and quinoa crops! Those who hotly deny ignorance should think of when they last included millet in their meals (especially instead of rice or wheat) and why not.

It is heretical to say that the Green Revolution in India has contributed to many crises in India, but it is true. The government’s push to grow high-yielding wheat and rice to feed India’s growing millions from the 1960s is understandable but not excusable. Millennia-old traditional food crops were sidelined to achieve that commendable goal, among them were millets, which have now been resurrected in international esteem and bestowed the title of superfood.

Maybe India’s government at that time was swayed by the biased Western classification of maize (makai) sorghum (jowar), oats (jaee), barley (jow), pearl millet (bajra), finger millet (ragi), kodo millet (varagu), proso millet (cheena), foxtail millet (kaun), little millet (kutki) and barnyard millet (shyama) as “coarse cereals”, deemed fit mainly for animal feed. Now, the sanctimonious West has suddenly woken up to the nutrition crisis and reversed its stand.

So “coarse” cereals have been gratuitously dubbed as superfoods and western do-gooders are recommending them as the solution for drought-ridden nations and malnourished populations. No wonder they have also been remarkably receptive to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vigorous espousal of this ancient group of cereals, leading the UN to accept India’s proposal to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets—not a moment too soon, that too.

The percentage of the so-called coarse cereals (including millets) declined from 30 per cent to 11 per cent of India’s gross cropped area from 1950-51 to 2019-20 thanks to the Green Revolution’s skew towards wheat and rice, and a few other factors. But India is still the largest producer of millets—over 40 per cent of the world’s total production—four times as much as Niger, and six times as much as China. In fact, Asia and Africa together grow 95 per cent of the world’s millet.

The logic of returning to this genre of cereals instead of only focussing on wheat and rice is manifest, especially as countries around the world—India included— are grappling with a serious water crisis. Agriculture is obviously the planet’s biggest water guzzler, and among crops, paddy and wheat require the greatest hydration. Alarmingly, these two are also huge emitters of greenhouse gases through mitigating strategies have now been adopted by many.

It certainly makes eminent sense then to grow millets as they thrive in arid climates. That probably explains why our wiser ancient ancestors, first in Africa and then Asia, domesticated and cultivated the wild grasses yielding this considerate superfood. The increasing incidence of gluten allergies and diabetes is perhaps God’s—and/or our bodies’—way of telling us that it is time to look again at millets for both sustenance and sustainability.

Decades of the dominance of rice and wheat production, coupled with recent rising interest in foreign cuisines has left many if not most Indians seriously deficient in knowledge about millets. Ragi (finger millet) remains a regional favourite—mainly in southern India—while bajra (pearl millet) has leapt from dowdy to trendy, starring in wedding repasts and fitness videos across the nation. But most other millets still languish in comparative obscurity.

Yet practically every state in India has local millet sub-varieties and meal staples. And Indian health experts invariably emphasise that millets are exceptionally good sources of fibre and protein, besides being replete with antioxidants, iron, calcium, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin B, flavonoids and essential amino acids. Obviously the average chawal-roti chomping Indians need to be prodded into taking a leap of faith to munch millets as well.

That is why Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement in last year’s Budget speech of the government’s intention to incentivise increased production as well as promote value-added millet products was so apt, particularly as India has already observed 2018 as the National Year of Millets. Hopefully, she will expand this important initiative in the 2023-24 Budget too. And as the world warms to millets, India can justifiably claim to lead by example.

India’s first peoples—adivasis—traditionally grew and ate many types of millet but were swayed by the lure of wheat, rice and cash crops. Thankfully, many tribal communities are now returning to millets as part of their crop cycles and meal components. The Odisha Millet Mission of the state government launched in 2017 to improve nutrition through the revival of millet farming and inclusion in the meals of tribal communities is a noteworthy success.

Karnataka was the first state to include jawar and ragi in the public distribution system (PDS) in 2015. Many states have initiated steps to add millet to mid-day meals for rural children and new mothers. And a model ‘millet village’ at Attapady in Kerala is living proof of the diverse health benefits of ‘coarse’ cereals. And this week ITC announced its own “Millet Mission” that will channel its diversified resources to introduce products in most categories.

The easier availability of wheat and rice and the downmarket image of millets has resulted in even health (and the planet) conscious urbane Indians remaining mostly unmoved. But the international spotlight thanks to the UN endorsement and a Padma Shri for Dr Vali should prompt them to sit up. And as more celebrity chefs and trendy restaurants join the millet movement, boza (made in Eastern Europe by fermenting millets) may become the next kombucha!

The author is a freelance writer. Views expressed are personal.

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