Millets, the poor man's diet, are rich in many qualities

The government has been consistently promoting the production and consumption of millets for a variety of reasons. Besides being extremely nutritious and relatively cheap, millets, in comparison with wheat and paddy, consume very less water. Besides this, their farming doesn't call for urea or any other chemical making it environment-friendly

Mithilesh DubeyMithilesh Dubey   31 Aug 2019 5:09 PM GMT

Millets, the poor man

"We observe today that the food articles given up by us have been taken up by the world. Barley, jowar, ragi, kodo, bajra, sama and many such food grains were once a staple of our diet. But over time, they have disappeared from our menu. This nutritious diet is now in high demand worldwide," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said this recently at an event.

This has revived the dialogue about millets in the country, the very coarse grains which essentially formed a poor man's diet for long. The Modi government has paid special attention to this for the past two years. With this view, in 2018, the Minimum Support Price for millets -- jowar, bajra, ragi, kutki, kodo, sama, kangni and cheena -- had been fixed.

Why are millets so important and why are they so promoted, this has several reasons.

Millets mean water conservation

The government's commitment to promoting millets can easily be gauged from the observance of the year 2018 as the National Millets Year by the then Union Minister for Agriculture and Welfare Radha Mohan Singh. He had also written to Jose Graziano, the chief secretary of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) demanding the declaration of 2019 as International Year of Millets.

The General Global Environment Change's report of 2017 has claimed that in comparison with wheat and paddy, millets consume very less water. Besides this, their farming doesn't call for urea or any other chemical making it environment-friendly.

The same report indicates that big nations like China are raising lesser rice whereas India had exported 37 lakh tonnes of the water-guzzling crop of Basmati to other countries in 2018. The Data Blogs' report estimates the usage of water per kg of wheat farming to be between 500 and 4,000 liters.


As per the report of journal Science Advances, India's 80% of the total available groundwater is used for agricultural purposes. Millets farming can hence save a huge amount of water. Dr Chandrakanta Vats, who works with the Agricultural Science Centre, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, said in her report that indeed the millet farming calls for a very small quantity of water. Jowar, bajra, ragi need 25% fewer rains than sugarcane or banana crops and 30% less than paddy. We use 4,000 liters of water to produce a kilo of paddy, while the millet crops can thrive even in the absence of irrigation.

In times such as these when water and food grains are running scarce, millets would provide for our nutritional requirement and curb food scarcity in the country.

Dr Vats told Gaon Connection, "Despite the government's impetuous on millets, the public is still clueless about them. Urban people may have adopted them, but rural India is still unaware of their benefits. So, the major thrust should be on raising awareness."

She informed further that millets being hardy can thrive even in poorer soils. They don't spoil easily. The country's major food grain gets spoiled due to poor upkeep whereas millets stay good to eat for at least 10-12 years.

Nutritional powerhouse

Millets have always been considered an excellent source of nutrition. This is why the government is trying to promote its cultivation. Keeping in mind its nourishing properties, millets have also been included in mid-day meals and the Public Distribution System (PDS).

US journal Science Advances had published a report 'Alternative Cereals Can Improve Water Usage and Nutrition' on July 4, 2018, in which it said that Indians' diet is fast losing its nutritional value. Along with climatic change, this may adversely affect their health.

The report said that Indian food is progressively getting poorer in nutrition despite an increase in food grain production. Although corn is more nutritious than rice, the former's production is on a decline.

In 1960, annual wheat requirement per Indian was 27 kg which today has exceeded 55 kg. Simultaneously, the demand for the millets has plummeted from 4.2 kg from 32.9 kg in the past four decades. Subsequently, the cultivation of millets has also gone down despite it requiring very little care and input cost.


Speaks on the issue, Deepak Acharya, a Botanist said: "Millets are most effective for ridding our villages of malnutrition. These grains alleviate anaemia and are readily available. There is a need, however, to spread awareness about their benefits. Previously millets were the choicest food-grains of a rural diet, but the promotion of rice, wheat, and lentils over them has diminished their usage. Kodo and mandua had kept our bones strong. It is crucial to reintroduce them to our diet."

The government has already put together an action plan to promote millet-cultivation. Across the country's 14 states, more than two hundred villages have been shortlisted for the project whose climate is conducive to millet farming.

Dr Vats says in her report that millets are a rich source of protein, iron, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and all vital vitamins. All these are crucial for optimum health and total physical as well as mental growth. Besides, they reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes, anaemia, heart-ailments and cancer of the liver. Ragi has 30 times more calcium than rice and twice more than any other food-grain. Kakun and kutki are packed with iron. It further said that keeping in mind their nutritional value, these coarse grains should instead be called nourishing grains.

Effective even in changing monsoon cycle

In the climate change scenario, much of people's hope rests upon the millets. As per a report published in Researchgate in March 2017, millets are less susceptible to climatic change than rice or wheat. Millets are not majorly dependent on rainwater. The report showed with the study it had conducted between 1966 and 2011 to investigate the effect of climatic change upon various crops that there has been a progressive drop in the monsoon rains.

The report further informed that in comparison with the millets, the crop of rice suffers more from the fluctuating rains. So, millet cultivation is a sound alternative for places where rice cultivation often fails. For uninterrupted food supply, we must look at millet cultivation.

Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), Gujarat's ex-director, Dr M Basu informed Gaon Connection, "Millets are relatively resistant to climatic change. These also hardly require any water. They do not call for use of any fertilizer or pesticide or urea. During the current climatic change, millets would become the primary source of a farmer's income."


Numerous impediments

The government is stressing on the cultivation of millets, however, little has been done towards arranging of provision for the latter's purchase and storage by the former. Dr Basu said: "It is good to encourage the cultivation of millets, but it should also benefit the farmer. To achieve this, firstly, the government purchase centers and storage must be put online. Like other crops, it should not happen that the crops rot due to rains. Also, the farmers must get a fair price for their crops."

Another challenge is to improve the cultivation of millets. The Indian Agricultural Ministry's report tells that in 1966, about 4.5 crore hectare land in the country grew millets whereas presently only 2.5 crore hectare grows millet.

Rice comprises 40% of the total food-grain production in India and 73% of kharif season grain production. Remaining 27% Kharif production comprises 15% corn, 8% bajra, 2.5% jowar, and 1.5% ragi.

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