From a simple, local staple to an international delicacy, the lowly millet is finally getting its place in the sun. The United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets after India proposed it and 72 countries supported it. Soon after the announcement, the Indian government launched a slew of programmes, including making it compulsory for Parliament’s cafeteria to introduce a few millet-based dishes on its menu.
Besides putting millets on menus and creating recipes, agriculture experts point out that if the government is truly committed to promoting this crop group, which has the potential to answer several of India’s agrarian, food, and health issues, it must support policies that will have a deeper and far-reaching impact. This must start from putting small farmers and women at the centre of the programme to prioritising it as a form of food security. Experts say that if the drive to push millets is inclusive and cohesive, it could be a turning point for national nutrition and for farming.
India is the world’s largest producer of millets (41 per cent), growing around 12 million tonnes annually. Even though India ranks among the five top exporters globally, exports are just about 1 per cent of the total production, according to data from the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.
Most millets in India are grown for home consumption. According to Kavitha Kuruganti, founder-convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), this aspect must be considered while embarking on the promotion programme. “Just because the crop is being bought, it should not hurt the farmer’s access to the safest nutrition grain they own.”
In 2018, the Indian government labelled millets, considered a powerhouse of nutrition, as “nutri cereals”. The Indian Institute of Millet Research (IIMR), which is promoting the crop to reach a goal of “zero hunger”, claims that millets are winners in every possible way. Health-wise, they are fibrous in content, have magnesium, iron, zinc, and niacin (vitamin B3), have high protein content, have a low glycaemic index, and are gluten free.
Agriculturists consider millets the most resilient crops. They grow easily in harsh and diverse climates and soil types; they are low on inputs but high on yields and do not rot easily. Some millets can be consumed even after 10-12 years of growing, thus providing food security and avoiding food wastage. Most important, millets do well in small-scale farming. With approximately 86 per cent of Indian farmers falling within the small and medium-scale category, pushing millets could directly benefit these farmers.
Kuruganti, who has worked on millets with farming communities, said: “Governments tend to hype things up so much that they lose track of how things ought to be done. If this year has to be successful, small farmers, women, particularly Adivasi and Dalit women, need to be at the centre of it. Promoting millets has to be steered at the community level, with local consumption prioritised, to prevent it from becoming an elitist fad.”
According to Kuruganti, the Odisha Millet Mission is perhaps the most successful for its end-to-end intervention, vision, and execution. In fact, she suggests that State governments use it as a blueprint. For instance, Odisha has put a ceiling on how much millet a farmer can sell—so that the family has something to eat.
Equally, Kuruganti said that if millets are to be repopularised, the movement needs to begin with the seeds. The reality is that either the quality of the seed is poor (especially lost millets like kodo millet) or the State seed corporations do not have the stock required to scale up production. Also, she said that the focus needs to be not on where it is grown but on who grows it.
Other agriculturists warn that the drive must not fall into the trap of becoming capital intensive. “It would be foolish to introduce hybrid seeds, high external inputs, and processing units,” said an activist in Bengaluru. “There is also the danger of millets being too polished, which will take away the positive characteristics of nutrition.”
Grassroots workers say the millet story has to be ecologically sustainable and that the Green Revolution model should not be imposed on these crops. “If done the right way, millets will empower women and remove hunger,” said Kuruganti. She added that there were plenty of organisations working at the village level proving that the millet mission can be achieved through simple ways. For instance, in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, home mixers and grinders are used by women’s self-help groups to make consumable products.
Meanwhile, the Union Ministry for Agriculture has put together a “seven sutra” programme: enhancement of production, nutrition and health, value addition/recipe development, entrepreneurship, awareness creation, policy creation, and international exposure to promote millets.
- India is the world’s largest producer of millets (41 per cent), growing around 12 million tonnes annually.
- In 2018, the Indian government labelled millets, considered a powerhouse of nutrition, as “nutri cereals”.
- Experts say that if the drive to push millets is inclusive and cohesive, it could be a turning point for national nutrition and for farming.
- Grassroots workers say the millet story has to be ecologically sustainable and that the Green Revolution model should not be imposed on these crops.