Since the start of this year, the Union government appears to be on a mission to promote millets. With United Nations declaring 2023 as the ‘International Year of Millet’ on India’s proposal, the government has announced several programmes for the duration of the year to raise awareness on millets, and spawn a discussion on their health benefits and explore ways to increase their cultivation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March this year addressed a global millets’ conference in New Delhi, which saw the participation of 100 countries. The government had also organised a two-day millet festival in Delhi in December 2022, where Modi hosted a millet lunch for MPs.
But, can one sparrow make a summer? Definitely not, for several questions still linger on about millets and their benefits: How good are millets for India? Can anyone eat millets without any adverse impact? Are Indian farmers ready for growing millets on a large scale?
Millets have never been foreign to me. My mother makes jowar roti, jhangora millet and ragi at home. Our family hasn’t experienced any harmful effects yet, and hopefully, it never will be the case because of millets.
But, for this story, I unlearnt the past and began afresh to understand farming, eating and living on millets.
Like other crops, millets emerge from seed too. So I travelled to Punjab to meet Raspinder Singh, a millet farmer, from Sherpur village. He grows ragi, wheat, pulses, barley, etc. But his new product is sprouted ragi flour, which Raspinder swears by.
“Millet ragi roti gives you the feeling of satisfaction because of the high fibre. You can tell the difference in energy in your body. After eating ragi roti, one doesn’t feel sluggish, but full of energy,” he explained.
But as we were eating another brownish-reddish ragi roti, I asked him what is ragi farming like. How can other people actually move towards it? He answered in a mix of Hindi and Punjabi, “A kg of millet requires 600 litres of water whereas 6,000 litres are required for growing 1 kg of rice. Millets don’t require chemical fertilisers either, and many millets are not vulnerable to pest or bird attacks. So farming-wise, millet is a good crop.”
“And, as we are saving water, and not using fertiliser subsidies, the government can provide Rs 7,000 to 8,000 per acre as an incentive to farmers for growing millets. Each year, directly or indirectly, paddy farmers receive a similar amount in the form of electricity, water, fertilisers, subsidies, etc. Financial parity would help boost production,” he added.
Another big problem plaguing millet production is the hard labour required to grow and harvest them. Agri-equipments for millet production are not available to the farmers. “If our scientists can develop agri tools for small farmers to help with the cultivation of millets, our labour cost can come down. We also need agri-technology for millet production. Currently, it is not available, or not suited for our farms,” Raspinder said.
After eating, we chatted more about farming and millets, and eventually, the anti-nutritive concerns generally raised against millets came up. Scientifically speaking, there are a number of studies that point out that millets possess certain chemicals which have anti-nutritional effects, and many millets are also classified as goitrogens, which are compounds that interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland.
“Millets should be kept in water for at least 8 to 10 hours before cooking. Anti-nutritive elements reduce if they are soaked in water. The best way further is to sprout the seed and then make it into flour. We call sprouted ragi flour ragi malt. This flour has high nutritional value and is the best available source of calcium,” he said.
To buttress his point, Raspinder took his phone and showed me a video of Khader Vali of Andhra Pradesh, who is regarded as the ‘millet man of India’.
What does the ‘millet man of India’ say?
“This is the first time, someone has talked about non-corporate food – millets. I thank the PM for bringing attention to these foods. The government’s millet mission is a good step towards local food,” Vali says in the video.
During our talk and whilst listening to Vali, it emerged that Modi’s millet mission is hugely inspired, if not “copied” from Vali’s work. Raspinder laughed when I asked him about it. But as the clock ticked, we got discussing the more serious stuff – the gaps in the millet policy.
“It is dangerous to take away farmers’ rights to seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have been cultivating millets, but today, the millet seed sovereignty seems to be slipping. The PM is not making farmers the centre of the policy but rather traders and entrepreneurs. Not a single paise for the farmers here. It’s for corporations and food processors. Where do farmers figure in the policy?” Vali says, in the video.
He goes on to explain the differences between various kinds of millets grown and eaten in India and points to the fact the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) couldn’t even differentiate between “mota” and “chota” grains.
“We should be careful that millets don’t go the rice way. And fundamentally rights of tribals and farmers over seeds should be protected. Because if corporations or the public sector come with one high-yielding variety, our diversity will go away. With race for land lost, we will also lose food sovereignty,” Vali remarks.
“Farmers can be easily manipulated, and hence, I hope the parliament will not allow for the corporate takeover of our millets. We should encourage local processing, production and consumption. Corporations are far removed from the traditional and food culture of millets,” he adds.
Next, I spoke with nutritionist Anju Venkat who has been for years helping people eat right. “First, we have to ask the question why millets now? We have spoiled the land and earth with industrial production, agriculture, and large-scale processing of wheat and corn. Now, we need to rebuild the soil. Millets will heal the soils and our health,” said Anju.
She spoke against the corporatisation of millets and the potential negative effects of eating millets the wrong way. “Millets take time to digest, but the residual aspect is less acidic when compared with wheat and corn. But, nevertheless, they take time to break down. We need to eat them singularly. That means no five-grain millet flour. We don’t mix millets because that’s not the way your body wants them,” she explained.
“We can only get positive nourishment when we eat singular grain in a meal. Plus grain should not be more than 30% of our meals. The rest should be pulses, vegetables, etc. Millets need to be eaten with a high vegetable diet because the body needs vegetables and fruits to be paired with millets. Otherwise, there will be an imbalance,” Anju said.
She advised against soaking millets, as it leads to fermentation of millets and potentially can upset the gut biome of individuals, but wholeheartedly supported sprouting of millets or using single millet flours with a high vegetable diet.
“Our millet push is a fad, and industry is making full use of it. They are not interested in people’s health but in their own profits. It is cheap to mix grains and create products, hence you have mixed millet biscuits, etc,” Venkat added.
Living with millets
According to Vijay Jawandhia from Maharashtra, who has been living and growing millets all his life, the government’s newfound interest in millets is a case of a mere paper tiger.
“If the government really wants to spread millets, why not enable their public procurement, and provide MSP on millets to farmers? If millets are introduced in mid-day meal schemes or given away under Public Distribution System (PDS), many farmers would like to shift to millet cultivation,” said Vijay.
“Living on millets is not an easy task. If we are to reintroduce millets into our diets and farming, we need to carefully plan the future steps, because millets have both pros and cons. And there are visible policy gaps in our understanding of nutrition and agronomy. Indigenous communities across India had developed ways to reduce the cons and increase the benefits of millets, but over time, we have lost them alongside the indigenous knowledge required for their cultivation and eating. And blindly handing over millets’ production to corporations is no solution either.”
Before we reintroduce millets back into our homes, thali and agrarian policy, we need to take a holistic view of not only the nutritional aspects of millets but also be mindful of how millets are grown and who really benefits from the millet push – farmers, consumers, governments or big corporations?