Recently Prime Minisiter Modi hosted a lunch in the Parliament Cafeteria with items prepared exclusively with millets, thus focusing on the importance of millets to a healthy food habit.
When Indians talk of millets, two very popular food items which come to one’s mind are, the ragi mudde/ragi sangati/kali ragi of Karnataka State or bajra roti of north India. Ragi here refers to the very highly nutritious Eleusine coracana, the finger millet and bajra, the pearl millet, Pennisiteum glaucum. Ragi is called the finger millet because of the five grain spikes at the top of the plant, which resemble five human fingers. Supply creates its own demand. This theory, believed to have been developed by the early 19th century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, might sound foolhardy, to the modern ear, but, this is how India lost the diversity of its food production basket to the “monocrop mindset” (perpetual rice-wheat rotation) of the green revolution. In the 1960s, as the country struggled to increase its food production, the Indian agricultural fraternity was pushed, by the Americans, to think that the solution lay in the dwarf “miracle” varieties of wheat and rice. Down six decades later we know how this chemically-centric farming, euphemistically called the green revolution, has ruined our soils, polluted and depleted our ground water, and has been a cause of such dreaded diseases as cancer, due to the indiscriminate use of herbicides and pesticides. Punjab State became India’s “cradle of green revolution”. Gurdaspur district in Punjab State, has become the “capital” of Indian cancer. At the time India had no chemical fertiliser manufacturing factories. Copious urea was imported from the USA, and, Indian soils became the dumping ground for this fertiliser. Release of nitrous oxide from urea hydrolysis, contributing as much as 35% to global warming, and such other related factors, have been extensively discussed in this paper, earlier by this author. In the haste to produce more, Indians forgot about our wide varieties of millets. This article is about them.
Why the mighty millet?:
A comparison of the nutritive value of these two millets with the staples rice and wheat shows how much superior they are compared to rice and wheat. For example, finger millet contains 344 grams of calcium, a very important nutrient in good bone formation in humans, compared to just 33 grams in rice and 30 grams in wheat, in other words, almost 1150% (1146.7 precisely) more. Inasmuch as fibre is concerned, finger millet contains more than 55% (55.6% precisely) fibre compared to both rice and wheat. Fibre is an important component in human nutrition, and helps greatly diabetic patients, and this simply establishes the superiority of finger millet. India being the diabetes capital of the world, it is high time we thought of popularising this millet over rice and wheat consumption, especially the former. No wonder, the wise Kannadigas of yesteryears thought highly of the nutritious value of the ragi mudde, as compared to the ubiquitous idli or dosa, to which the human palate is attracted, but, provides much less nutrition and energy.
A shining example:
In 2017 the Odisha State Government launched “The Odisha Millet Mission” (OMM), which aims to bring millets back to its fields and food plates of India, by encouraging farmers to grow the millet crops which traditionally formed a substantial part of the diet and of the cropping systems of the tribal people. This highly varied group of small-seeded cereal crops, not only require much less water than other cereals like rice and wheat, but, also are also a lot more climate resilient than the traditional cereals. OMM provides incentives for ragi farmers up to Rs 9500 per hectare over a three-year period to shift to millet cultivation. This included both free seeds and organic fertilisers. Public Policy Think Tanks like Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN) headquarterd in Hyderabad and the Nabakrushna Chaudhary Centre for Development Studies (NCDS) based in Bhubanshwar, which have partnered with the state government for the mission, conducrt regular training programmes for farmers to improve ragi producrtivity and lower input costs. To complete the supply chain, the government has created an assured maket for the produce. A minimum support price of INR 3,377 per quintal (100 kg) of ragi, much more than the INR 1940 for paddy is paid to the farmers. During the last five yearas, Odisha has recorded a 14-fold increase in millet production, in particular of ragi, from 3,333 hectares in 2017-2018 to 53, 230 ha in 2021-2022. Even the average yiled has increased by 28 per cent, beause of quality seeds and sustainble field practices. In 2018 NCDS conducted a survey of farmers households growing millets under the OMM and found that the their produce per hectare doubled from INR 9,477 to INR 20,701, and, income per hectare from INR 3,957 to INR 12,486. The above clearly shows that with effective backing for market access even products from natural farming can be very profitable as argued by this author in an artice in this paper in August, this year.
To ensure that the millets reach the food plates, the government regularly conducts campaigns and rallies to make peple aware of the great importance of millets in human consumption and remove the unfortunate stigma that millerts are just the food of the tribals.
Conclusion and a request to New Delhi:
It is very high time that New Delhi came out of the Baconian mindset that the solution to India’s food basket lies in just wheat and rice. This has been the second most tragedy with the green revolution, apart from its disastrous consequences on the environment, which focused just on wheat and rice. The minimum suppot price (MSP) syndrome reflects this Baconian mindset. While New Delhi offers the current MSP for wheat and rice at INR 1940 and INR 1975 respectively, for ragi it is only marginally higher at INR 2194. OMM gives INR 3,377 for ragi per quintal. What prevents New Delhi from followig this apttern? It will have a stupendous effect not just on ragi cultivation in India, but in the long run, help build a population with far better health, which is used to consume only rice and wheat.
(The author is former Professor, national Sxcience Foundation, The Ryal Society, Belgium and can be reached at [email protected])