The United States (UN) has declared the calendar year 2023 as the International Year of Millets. This is another addition to India’s rise as soft power during the stint of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Millets have been an integral part of Indian diet for centuries. In addition to a plethora of health benefits, millets are also good for the environment and do not require much water to grow. Millets are one of the perennial foods known to humans yet its usefulnees was never recognised. It was untapped. Farmers faced a plethora of problems and hurdles. Non availability of good quality seeds, the lesser shelf life of millets, lack of technologies, non encouragement, no subsidies to support and restricted cultivation were primary underlying inhibitions. There were problems at the next stages too — lack of uniform standards and grades and absence of market linkages. A widely popular Indian food staple, millets — encompasses a diverse group of cereals including bajra, propo, foxtail, barnyard, little, kodo, browntop and others — as an important source of nourishment for millions across Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“Millets are incredible ancestral crops with high nutritional value. Millets can play important role and contribute to our collective efforts to empower small holdings farmers, achieve sustainable development and eliminate hunger”
— Food and Agriculture Organisation, United Nations
Of course, the UN at the behest of the Modi Government has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The move essentially seeks to create awareness and enhance production and consumption of millets. Experts opine that Millets can also help in transforming the agrifood systems and adapt to challenges of climate change and promote biodiversity.
Let us examine why the UN move and a great Indian initiative though kept away from publicity limelight for long will help to bring about some revolutionary changes. It goes without stating that urbanisation, non promotion of agri side based industries in country and poor land management are resulting in the loss of agricultural land. Land governance is slowly emerging as an issue. With millets, it will be possible to reclaim ‘degraded dry lands’. This makes millets critical in feeding the contemporary world faced with various sorts of challenges related to farm and human health. The UN is quite forthcoming to encourage more parts of Asia and Africa to replace the “big three”— rice, wheat, and maize (corn), which combined provide the world with more than 50 per cent of its calories.
Understandably, for quite too long, millets have been seen as a food for poor farmers; but the fact of the matter is entirely different and perhaps even shocking.
In countries and regions at global stage and also in the South Asian and Indian context, where millet’s decline has been more, zinc deficiency has rocketed. It ought to be admitted that Millet is rich in zinc, iron, and fibres. Hence, a large section of people in today’s world depending on wheat and rice cycle could be under-nourished with calorie-rich but micronutrient poor. In India, what’s called the kitchen ingredient of Millets is mainly a kharif crop. This has many nutritional benefits and ensures sustainable production. It does help curb the risk of heart disease and is regarded as healthy for the skin and organ functions. Millets were abundantly used in the north eastern parts of India once upon a time. Nongtraw village in Meghalaya falls under East Khasi Hills district and is about 40 km away from state capital Shillong. In this region a local variety of Millets had been a staple food for long. It was called Raishan, a creamy-colored grain and used abundantly for making breads, soup and even baked as biscuits. But somehow extensive push and social liking for rice had nearly forced this variety of Millets to extinction.
The revival journey of Millets may not be possible simply by a UN declaration or a few ceremonial functions. The basic approaches have to be people and consumer driven and guided by technological support. “A network of linkages in millets through the involvement of multi-stakeholders in the millet ecosystem must evolve for sharing the expertise with farmers, common users and also Self-Help Groups (SHGs),” says a commodity analyst Manoj Sakhrani. There would also be an imperative need to develop a successful millet value chain ecosystem with end-to-end solutions for creating demand for millet. Others emphasise that a National Rainfed Area Authority report had said that even after utilizing maximum irrigation potential, about half of the total irrigated land would continue to remain unirrigated in India. Hence, it would be prudent and pertinent to encourage Millet as it can be grown on shallow and low fertile soils as well. In the ultimate analysis it would be relevant to list out a few benefits out of Millets cultivation and making it a part of food habits and regular diets. At the national level, one could say that India will be able to reduce chronic water stress and help poorer sections get diet/food by replacing rice/wheat with more nutritious but less thirsty cereals. Another benefit will be highly based on scientific foundation. Experts say that with rising temperatures, many States in India may not be able to grow basmati rice or wheat 20-30 years from now being highwater consuming crops; hence, there is an urgent need to revive traditional grains as Millets are more climate resilient and lower water consuming. The Centre is more than serious to encourage Millets. Vice President of India Jagdeep Dhankhar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi along with Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, former PM H D Deve Gowda, Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, and Union Minister of Agriculture Narendra Singh Tomar shared the special ‘Millets only’ luncheon organised by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in the interregnum of the winter session of Parliament. The delicacies that were prepared for the luncheon included Khichdi made out of millet, Jowar roti, Raagi Roti, Haldi sabji, bajra, Churma. The sweet delicacies included bajra Kheer and bajra cake amongst others.
The Government is taking other steps as well. To promote shipment of nutri-cereals, the Commerce and Industry Ministry, through export promotion body, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), has prepared a comprehensive strategy to promote Indian millets’ exports across the globe. For exports of Indian millets, the Central Government has planned and strategised to facilitate participation of exporters, farmers and traders in 16 international trade expos and Buyer Seller Meets.