Millets comprise a family of warm-weather, annual cereals that have been grown for centuries worldwide, owing to their minimal soil requirements and high nutritious value. They are grainy and small in appearance; a trademark of many cereals showing little or no dependency on weather. This, combined with a relatively short growing season makes them an ideal drought crop. The pearl millet, commonly known as Bajra in many parts of India has been a staple dish for centuries whereas the finger millet, a sub family of millets called Ragi is extremely popular in South India.
However, millet production and consumption has declined rapidly since the 1950s. This decline is primarily due to two reasons. Firstly, millets are generally not known to be very palatable to the younger population and is widely considered to be an acquired taste. Moreover, India faced a cumbersome task of overcoming high malnutrition rates while dealing with ways to tackle poverty and the Green Revolution seemed to provide the country a way to achieve exponential growths in agriculture, specifically catering to rice crops. This combined with a preferential choice for maize, rice and wheat crops due to their palatable nature led to a decline in the production of ragi and bajra.
Despite this shift, India continues to hold the distinction of being the world’s largest pearl millet producer. However, the scale at which millet production is declining, is striking. The number of people consuming millets has crashed exponentially with the country showing a 59% and 67% decrease in rural and urban millet consumption over the past 50 years (Basavaraj et al. 2010).
Features and Nutritious Value:
A crop with a very small rapid growing pattern such as the millet is seen fit for areas that suffer droughts frequently, owing to their resistance to high temperatures and low water necessities. They require only 1/5th to 1/10th of the water that rice and wheat require during crop production. Moreover, millets are extremely nutritious. In a 100 gram serving, raw millet provides 378 calories and is a rich source (20% or more of the Daily Value, DV) of protein, dietary fiber, several B vitamins and numerous dietary minerals, especially manganese at 76% DV (USDA nutrient table). Raw millet is 9% water, 73% carbohydrates, 4% fat and 11% protein (USDA Database Entry). They are gluten-free and rate constantly as one of the least likely substances to get allergic to, apart from being easily digestible.
India currently faces a tremendous crisis with a sharp increase in the number of droughts. Multiple factors such as rapid urbanization and increased fossil fuel consumption that have been occurring in the recent past have led to significant climatic changes. The year 2016 proved to be fatal with a severe drought destroying crops, killing livestock and leaving close to 330 million people without adequate water for basic daily livelihood (CNN-news). This problem is not confined to the villages and can be seen in major metropolitan cities all around the country. The frequency is expected to increase with rapid cooling of the atmosphere in Central Asia according to eminent scientists such as P V Joseph.
Crops such as rice constitute a large percentage of our agricultural produce. Rice, is a highly demanding crop and therefore sets huge dents in the water reservoirs of our country. This could have massive consequences leading to a massive crop loss if water is not adequate, resulting in an increased financial debt for the farmers. Moreover, this has already started to show with many farmers committing suicide due to neck-deep debts and clearing these debts would cost the government millions of dollars. Therefore, there is a dire need for a suitable alternative that follows the path of sustainable crop production while maintaining an adequate crop production to selling price ratio to ensure that farmers profit through the drought stricken months while minimizing water wastage.
Millets could serve as a hub for soil replenishment in areas where drought has always been a major concern. Currently. subsidies provided by the Government of India make buying rice an easier possibility for the population below the poverty line. This, combined with the Green Revolution led to large-scale production of rice and paddy, favouring these crops over any other. The Green Revolution led to a huge shift towards a rice based diet leading to drastic changes in the nutrient composition of meals had.
Malnutrition and Poverty:
Malnutrition continues to plague a significant percentage of the population despite India achieving bumper crop harvests in recent years. A staggering 35.7% of children aged below 5 years continue to remain underweight and suffer some form of nutritional deficiency. Moreover, India has an astounding number of women (35.5%) and men (34.2) with a BMI of less than 17. In addition to this, 36% of children aged below 5 years are underweight and 38% are stunted (NFHS-4). This poses a huge threat to the upcoming generation, as developmental plasticity is at its highest during the initial formative years of a child. These years play a huge role in determining the future lifespan of a child and non-adequate nutrition can interfere with many developmental processes that could hinder a child’s entire future.
Malnutrition still exists despite India having a surplus of rice and other staple grains. This is because the criteria for not being malnourished is to have adequate amounts of all vitamins and minerals, along with necessary carbohydrates, fats and proteins. However, white rice despite being fortified with vitamin A and other such varieties still does not serve as a viable source for other important trace minerals and only partly fulfills nutrient requirements. The middle and upper class do not suffer to such an extent, when it comes to the shift in nutrition to rice and wheat, because even if there’s might not be a perfect diet, they cover all bases when it comes to daily macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
Several schemes have been implemented at schools all over the country to ensure adequate meal allocations as part of the Midday Meal scheme. However, these meals are not very well-balanced and reserved to one and sometimes two meals a day. A child requires at least three balanced meals in the right composition to ensure healthy development. A cheaper alternative could be to use a resource that serves a majority of daily recommended dietary requirement in one single component of the meal, thereby reducing the need for additional side-dishes. This would ensure that the children get their daily calorific value and probably even more at the same amount spent currently. The idea of eliminating poverty and malnutrition should not only focus on providing calorie rich meals, but also to ensure that it covers basic macronutrient and micronutrient needs.
An increase in millet production would ensure that the poor always have crops to sell, irrespective of droughts which currently is extremely common in India. This would reduce the financial burden on farmers and give them an alternate livelihood not only to grow crops that could feed families at nominal rates but also ensure the replenishment of soil. A gradual increase in millet production, would induce demand for millet based products making many more millet based products cheaper to buy. A crop that is highly nutritious can be given to families below the poverty line rather than relying purely on a rice based diet that does not fill a majority of macronutrient and micronutrient needs. This would help eradicate malnutrition at a faster pace and ensure that poverty is on the downfall, because a healthier diet rather than a calorie based diet would lead to healthy development of the current generation. A healthier current generation would serve as a driving force to pull India out of poverty and ensure that our statistics do not have dismal records in public health. These steps do not require a significantly higher budget allocation for a scheme but requires a carefully processed scheme that accommodates a healthy mix of millets and rice crops, rather than a full-scale rice crop production. A 20-30% increase in the inclusion of millets in the diet can significantly increase macronutrient and micronutrient values in a diet, making it a whole lot healthier and complete in comparison to a diet that is mainly rice or wheat based.
Even to this decade, 46% of the millet consumption in India is by the rural population which shows them favouring a millet based diet (Basavaraj et al. 2010). A gradual shift towards a millet based production is possible if a shift is seen in the urban population wanting to eat millets. The reason being that crop production is highly dependent on what people wish to eat, and the urban youth form a huge chunk of the population. Introducing a millet based cuisine in restaurants as a choice would introduce people to newer healthier recipes and make people realize that they aren’t the tasteless cereals they once used to be. Innovations in food science and technology have helped refine these dishes to a huge extent and this gives numerous possibilities to create demand for a product that could be a life saver for many farmers, especially the ones that have to grow crops in drought prone areas. Growing millets at subsidized rates would give these farmers an additional livelihood and a more stable source of income. Millets have a good crop yield and their minimal requirements would reduce the workload and ensure a good return, thereby lowering the existing financial stress that has been a result of various suicides in the recent past.
A three-way survey system can be generated to ask people if they were aware of millets and millet based foods. Then, one can spread awareness regarding what millets are and what millet based cuisine would taste like. Urbanization of a food source such as millets could create more demand for these little grains, which in turn could result in higher demand. A higher demand could result in higher crop production leading to a shift in the diet regime where the country adopts a mixed nutritious diet. Questions and surveys such as these can attract national participation and bring in the country together to give useful data on developing India as a whole. This would stand true to the initiative of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas and help transform the agricultural sector of this country.
- Basavaraj G, Parthasarathy Rao P, Bhagavatula S and Ahmed W. 2010. Availability and utilization of pearl millet in India. Journal of SAT Agricultural Research 8.
- Kodkany B. S., Bellad R. M., Mahantshetti N. S., Westcott J. E., Krebs N. F., Kemp J. F., et al. (2013). Biofortification of pearl millet with iron and zinc in a randomized controlled trial increases absorption of these minerals above physiologic requirements in young children. J. Nutr. 143 1489–1493. 10.3945/jn.113.176677
- Vinoth A, Ravindhran R. Biofortification in Millets: A Sustainable Approach for Nutritional Security. Frontiers in Plant Science. 2017;8:29. doi:10.3389/fpls.2017.00029.
- Millet Network of India, http://www.milletindia.org