The United Nations has, at India’s initiative, declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. This, even as India’s own production of these “nutri cereals” — jowar, bajra and ragi and minor millets such as kodo, kutki, kakun, sanwa, cheena and kuttu — has fallen from 23-24 million to 19-20 million tonnes over the last 4-5 decades. The reason: Millets aren’t the first choice either of consumers or producers. Kneading dough and rolling rotis is much easier with wheat than with millet flour. Wheat has gluten proteins that make the dough more cohesive and elastic. The resultant breads come out soft, unlike with millets that are gluten-free. The public distribution system (PDS) has made rice and wheat accessible even to the rural poor, for whom these were previous aspirational cereals. For farmers, too, millets are orphan crops. With access to irrigation, they will immediately switch to growing wheat and rice that yield 3-4 times more than jowar or bajra.
That said, cultivation of millets deserves a special push, given their nutritional superiority over wheat and rice — whether in terms of amino acid profile or vitamins, minerals and crude fibre content. They are also hardier and drought-resistant crops, which has to do with their short growing season (70-100 days, as against 120-150 days for paddy and wheat) and lower water requirement (350-500 mm versus 600-1,200 mm). The right strategy would be to promote their cultivation in those regions — rain-fed semi-arid and hilly terrains — where they have been well-adapted. One cannot expect farmers in Punjab or coastal Andhra Pradesh to grow bajra and ragi; the yield sacrifices and opportunity costs of diverting irrigated land for these would be far too high. A more realistic approach is to incentivise farmers in western Rajasthan, southern Karnataka or eastern Madhya Pradesh — who are already cultivating bajra, ragi and minor millets — to not shift to rice and wheat. These districts/regions can, in turn, be developed as clusters for particular millets — like Dindori in MP for kodo and kutki.
The same region-specific strategy could be adopted even for boosting consumption. India, according to data for 2021-22, has 14.89 lakh schools with 26.52 crore students. These, plus another 14 lakh pre-school anganwadi centres, constitute a large potential market for millets. The PDS can continue supplying rice and wheat, which are more amenable to nationwide procurement, stocking and distribution. But the schools and anganwadis can serve khichdi, dosas, energy bars and puddings made from locally-sourced millets, along with a daily glass of milk and egg for every child. The need for such wholesome nutrition would be more for children in the very regions that are suited for millet cultivation.