Going back to our roots has been this government’s multi-pronged effort, basic foods is among the priorities. Going back to the millets story is a familiar one for many of us who as children would enjoy the bajra ki roti, but over time, this seems to have vanished for no apparent reason. Corporates too, like ITC Foods, are going along, leading the way.
The United Nations declared 2023 as the “International Year of Millets,” following the Indian government’s recommendation in 2019. The government, led by the PM himself, has been in overdrive to promote Millets – a humble class of Mota Anaj (coarse grain) that was for long a part of the ancient Indian diet, which steadily receded into the background as Wheat and Rice gained popularity due to market economics and the Green Revolution. Let us explore the reasons behind the exceptional comeback of a long-forgotten Indian grain and why its ascend will have significant implications than just promoting good health.
A pivot for Atmanirbhar Bharat
Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) has been the recurring theme since the COVID-19 crisis, and supply chain disruptions have laid bare the fragile nature of global cooperation. Unfortunately, despite international attempts to restore normalcy and continue with ‘business as usual,’ the supply chains continue to be disrupted. Plus, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has created uncertainties around food security and fertilizer supplies (Russia and Ukraine are key global suppliers of Wheat and Fertilizers). India may be better placed to subsidize costs and insinuate her people from globally surging prices of commodities like Wheat, Paddy and Corn. That, however, is not a prudent strategy for the longer-term. Widening India’s food basket and reducing dependence on Wheat and Rice may help India better navigate food security challenges.
Food security is a critical element of that self-reliance, which aims to insulate India from political pressures and high food inflation that have ravaged smaller nations, most notably in India’s neighbourhood. To this end, the government is encouraging the adoption of Millet crops, helping it make quite a comeback.
Catalyst for an export revolution for small and marginal farmers
One of the reasons why the government has popularized millets as a great food choice is because perhaps it recognizes their potential in improving the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers and promote sustainable agriculture. The government has launched several initiatives to increase the cultivation of Millets, including the Millet Mission, which aims to increase Millet’s production and consumption in the country. The government has also launched a Millet cluster development program to provide support to Millet farmers and encourage entrepreneurship in the sector. And perhaps, views it as an economic opportunity to position India as its global hub. This is because millets’ cultivation can also create new avenues for exports and revenue — Millets is already popular in Africa and other parts of the world, and effective marketing could make the crops valuable export commodities.
We have seen the setting up of millet processing units and the inclusion of Millets in the Midday meals. PM Modi touched upon the importance of Millets, saying “Just as people have made yoga and fitness a part of their lives by taking active participation on a large scale; similarly, people are adopting millets on a large scale. People are now making millets a part of their diet. A huge impact of this change is also visible. On the one hand, the small farmers who traditionally used to produce millets are very excited”, as per the English rendering of his address released by the Prime Minister’s Office.
A weapon against climate change and food scarcity
Then, there are India’s commitments to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. High water-demanding crops like rice and wheat have strained India’s water resources. Meanwhile, Millets are drought-resistant crops, meaning they need less water and have a lower environmental impact. Thus, they are ideal alternatives, especially for arid parts of India, where water scarcity is a significant problem. They can be grown in hot environments, even at 64 degrees centigrade! So, promoting the cultivation of millets can help conserve water resources and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. What else, Millets are carbon-neutral, which can help India reduce its carbon emissions emanating from agriculture.
Millets are equally critical for India’s attempts to improve its rankings in the Global Hunger Index, where it ranks a lowly 101 out of 116 countries, indicating a severe hunger problem. In addition, the World Health Organization (WHO) has ranked India 145th in terms of overall health system performance. To improve these rankings, India needs to prioritize the availability of high-nutritional food. An easily available diet rich in nutrients can help reduce malnutrition and associated health problems, resulting in improved health indicators and rankings.
Superfood for everyone
The government’s focus on popularizing Millets coincides with the global buzz around Superfoods. Said to contain a higher-than-normal nutrient value, Millet items have become all the rage after people have prioritized health and wellness in pandemic-marred years. They are nutrient-dense, gluten-free grains, rich in fibre, protein, and micronutrients, making them ideal for people with dietary restrictions. Millets are also easy to digest, and their consumption has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, even heart disease, and certain types of cancer. Mentioned below are some other health benefits of Millets:
- Rich in nutrients: Millets are a good source of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. They are also high in fibre, protein, and B vitamins, making them an ideal food for maintaining good health.
- Low Glycaemic Index: Millets have a low glycaemic index, which means that they are slowly digested and absorbed, leading to a slow and steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. This makes them an ideal food for people with diabetes or those who are trying to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
- Gluten-free: Millets are naturally gluten-free, which makes them a great alternative for people who are sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease. They are also a great source of nutrition for people on a gluten-free diet.
- Weight loss: Millets are low in calories and fat, which makes them an ideal food for weight loss. They are also high in fibre, which can help feel full for longer periods and reduce hunger pangs.
- Heart health: Millets are rich in antioxidants, which can help reduce inflammation and protect against heart disease. They are also a good source of magnesium, which is essential for maintaining a healthy heart.
- Digestive Health: Millets are rich in fibre, which can help improve digestion and prevent constipation. They are also a good source of prebiotics, which can promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria.
- Anti-Cancer Properties: Millets contain compounds that have been shown to have anti-cancer properties. They are also rich in antioxidants, which can help prevent oxidative damage to cells and reduce the risk of cancer.
In conclusion, the changing global relationships and alignments have highlighted the importance of self-reliance, and Millets has emerged as a key tool in India’s efforts to achieve this goal. Their nutritional value, versatility, and sustainability make them ideal crops for meeting India’s food security needs and achieving its sustainable development goals. And with PM Modi’s push, it is likely to emerge as a key crop in India’s quest for food security, increasing agricultural exports and attaining its sustainable development goals due by 2030.
There is much promise to this narrative. Corporate giants like ITC have opened an exclusive millets division. Surely, others will follow suit, leading an irreversible trend in wholesome and sustainable food story.