In today’s Finshots, we trace the history of millets in India and explain why it is the buzzword today.

The Story

Everyone’s talking about millets these days. You know — jowar, bajra, ragi.

In the Budget speech, the Finance Minister announced that India wants to be the global hub for millets. We convinced the UN to declare that 2023 would be the “International Year of Millets”. And even big Indian corporations companies such as Tata and ITC are jumping on the millet bandwagon.

It’s like we’ve all suddenly discovered a new superfood and we can’t get enough of it.

But why this sudden affection for millets, you ask?

Well, India has got a significantly high prevalence of diabetes. And a lot of it had to do with our food habits. Millets could help combat that. See, millets score quite low on the Glycemic Index. Which simply means that it gets broken down into sugar in the body quite slowly. It doesn’t create spikes in blood glucose. And the end result? Well, some researchers say that eating millets frequently can reduce blood glucose levels by 12–15%.

Then there’s the bit about food security.

Millets need way less water to grow. We need 5000 litres of water to grow 1 kg of rice. But we only need 650–1200 litres of water for 1 kg of millet. And with underground water sources depleting quickly, shifting to millets can help with conservation. It’s a better crop to sow in drought-prone areas too. Also, it’s a pretty hardy crop. Insects don’t attack it as much and that means we don’t need pesticides as such. That leads to a healthier crop too.

And now that even the west is tom-tomming the benefits of millets, we believe it’ll help us export even more and farmers will make money.

So yeah, it does seem to make complete sense to focus on millets for a sustainable future.

But here’s the thing, millets were always popular in India. In fact, research suggests that it dates back to 3,000 BCE during the Indus civilisation. And its magical properties are even mentioned in ancient texts like the Yajurveda.

So when did we start to forget about the humble millet, you ask?

Well, it all began with the British rule. See, back in the day, millets were the staple crop almost all across India. But the colonial rulers wanted something that was profitable to them — sugarcane and cotton. These plantations sprung up and millets were relegated to the background.

But we didn’t do anything to promote millets after independence either. And that’s because of a massive food security problem in the 1950s. Rice and wheat, which was a staple for most people by then, were in acute shortage. And to assuage fears, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru even announced that he’d started adding 25% of sweet potato along with wheat to his rotis. He didn’t do it because it was better. There just wasn’t enough wheat.

But such scarcity couldn’t go on for long. Something had to change. Then along came the famous green revolution. There were new methods of farming and better irrigation facilities. And more importantly, new seeds were planted. These seeds would be disease-resistant and high-yielding.

It was a life saver. India didn’t have to import grains anymore. We became self-sufficient and gradually even could export to the world.

But all of this only focused on rice and wheat. Simply because the yield on millets was low. And farmers were trying to make money. It didn’t make economic sense to farm millets. The area used for millet farming dropped drastically from 18.5 million hectares in 1961 to just 8.5 million hectares in 2019 and the per capita consumption of the grain fell from 33 kg a year to just 4.

Indian farmers gradually relegated millets to the background.

Another part of the problem was also India’s Public Distribution System (PDS). It’s a wonderful scheme that supports millions of households by giving free grains across India. But, the largesse has also meant that communities that earlier grew their own millets and were self-sufficient, changed tracks. They preferred to get the free grains. And didn’t want to break their backs over harvesting millets. And since the PDS doled out rice and wheat, that’s what became popular.

Millets had become an orphan crop.

And the end result of all this?

India become calorie-rich. But micronutrient-poor. Rice and wheat didn’t simply have the zinc and iron that grains like millets provided. And we need these micronutrients for growth and development. Today, nearly 80% of Indians are said to be missing these vital micronutrients.

The problem is laid out clearly in the recent National Family Health Survey — Every second Indian woman is anaemic, every third child is malnourished, and every fifth child is wasted (low weight-to-height). In fact, it’s estimated that we lose ₹6 crore every day by not treating childhood wasting.

It’s a gigantic issue.

So yeah, you can see why there’s a renewed push to support millets. We have to fix the nutrition problem before it gets too late. And some states like Odisha and Karnataka have already made strides to include millets in their PDS programmes

We’ve also given millets an image makeover. We gave millets a promotion in 2018 — From being ‘coarse grains’ that people associate with animal fodder to ‘nutri-cereals’ that promised health benefits. And there’s all the associated marketing to give it a massive boost.

Also, large corporations taking up the cause can help to really popularize the humble millet.

Like Tata. When the Indian giant bought the Kottaram Agro Foods in 2021, it also got the Soulfull brand. And if you haven’t heard of it, Soulfull made a bunch of millet-based breakfast cereals and snacks. With Tata’s reach and distribution, it can take this to every nook and corner of India. Not saying cereals are a good alternative to whole grains. But it’s a start.

Also, there’s ITC which has its own FMCG line of products. The folks here have already promised to introduce millets into its noodles, atta, and biscuits. Also, since there’s a whole bunch of ITC hotels peppered across the country, you’ll soon find millet-based foods items in all the menus and buffets.

But there’s still a hurdle we need to cross.

Farmers. They are still reluctant to make the switch to millets. Simply because of the cost and yield. See, one acre of paddy gives 35–40 quintals of rice. And it costs ₹2,000 to produce this. On the other hand, one acre of millet (ragi) yields only 6–7 quintals and costs ₹3,000.

So in Karnataka, when the state government tried to introduce millets (mainly Jowar) into the PDS programme, they got pushback from the farmers. Even though they promised to buy it at a 40% premium to the market price.

Convincing farmers that their livelihoods won’t be affected is going to be crucial.

So yeah, while “It’s Millet Time”, the big shift might still be some time away. But for the sake of improving India’s nutritional intake, let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Until then…

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