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Millets never had ‘marketing gurus’ like rice, wheat. Thanks to Modi govt, now they will

Corporate brands, the Modi government, and even the UN have told us about the benefits of millets. But there's a gap–it's still unclear to people.

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India has managed to get the world to recognise 2023 as the International Year of Millets, but our tryst with the grains dates back centuries. Whether it is in bajre ki roti, ragi mudde, or jowar bhakri, millets have always been familiar grains in Indian households. Yet, somewhere along the way, the monocultures of wheat and rice took over, and the mighty millets took a backseat.

But their time has arrived. India’s Green Revolution happened in the 1960s; the White Revolution brought milk centrestage in the 1970s. Now, the 2020s will see a ‘Millet Revolution’.

In the Union Budget speech last month, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman highlighted key budgetary plans supporting a millet movement. Initiated by India along with Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia and Senegal, and co-sponsored by over 70 nations, the proposal to celebrate 2023 as the International Year of Millets got unanimous approval from all the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly in April 2021. “Support will be provided for post-harvest value addition, enhancing domestic consumption, and for branding millet products nationally and internationally,” Sitharaman announced.

Why millets and India go well together

Millets are packed with proteins, carbohydrates, and fibre. Ragi contains thrice more calcium than any other cereal. It has high-fibre content that keeps people fuller for long — a boon in a nation like India that grapples with the issue of food security every day.  Jowar is a gluten-free grain with three to four times more antioxidants than other whole grains, making it a ‘super immunity booster’.

Studies have shown that regular intake of millets can have a major impact in reducing iron deficiency and anaemia, a condition that particularly plagues women and children in the country.

And perhaps most importantly, millets need only one-third water required by rice. They are hardy grains that can withstand long periods of drought and require little pesticides or fertilisers to thrive, truly making them ‘supergrains’ — good for us, the farmers, and the planet.

The list of benefits goes on. And yet, we don’t talk about it enough.

Why? The answer is simple – millets never got the same ‘marketing gurus’ as rice and wheat did. The Green Revolution focused on introducing high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat to increase food production in order to alleviate hunger and poverty. While the production of wheat and rice doubled, that of other indigenous food crops like millets declined. And that’s what we need to undo in 2022.

Also read: Millets export from India to increase exponentially in coming years, says government

How millets can be centre stage

The time has come for millets to be centre stage. Over the last few years, individuals, corporate brands, the Indian government, and even the United Nations have worked towards communicating the benefits of this grain. But even then, there is a gap – the benefits of millets aren’t clear to people. The mighty millet hasn’t yet found its way to every plate in India, unlike wheat and rice.

While the ball has been rolling, there is still plenty to be done for millet advocacy in India. It needs to achieve grain diversity, aggressively communicate the benefits of millets for people of all ages and backgrounds, and build a millet revolution’.

Millets can positively impact society, the economy, and the environment. But it’s a long road ahead. To reach that goal, India must recognise what it needs to do.

First things first, as India ramps up its policies for millets, it needs a cooperative of millet-related brands and people to build a millet ecosystem. This amalgamation of the best minds in the industry will go a long way in enabling India to own the Nutri-cereal narrative

Everyone who grew up in India in the ’80s and the ’90s remembers the iconic ‘Doodh Doodh Doodh’ campaign by the National Dairy Development Board. This cohort also grew up humming along to the earworm ‘Sunday Ho Ya Monday, Roz Khao Ande’ jingle created by the National Egg Coordination Committee. As supergrains, millets need a super ad campaign in 2022. Such a national-level campaign, funded by a consortium of public and private players, can go a long way in promoting grain diversity and highlighting the nutritional benefits, taste, versatility, and affordability of millets.

In India, Bollywood celebrities and sportspeople are revered to the extent that they become brands in themselves, with citizens holding the things they say in the highest regard. To take millets into the fold of mainstream conversations, a mainstream face is required. The frontrunners in the millet ecosystem need to unearth the Amitabh Bachchan ‘Do Boond’ equivalent for the Nutri-cereals.

For the millet movement to truly succeed, each level of the value chain needs to prosper, including the subsistence farmers producing the grains. The end producer needs to be a part of the success story, and a few small steps can go a long way in ensuring their participation in the process – alternative ownership options like land leasing, share farming, or even equity partnerships can help change the outcomes in the millet value chain and truly make farmers equal stakeholders in it.

In recent years, the Narendra Modi government has increased focus on the grain, with the 2022 Union Budget highlighting that support will be provided for post-harvest value consumption of millets, enhancing domestic production as well as branding millet products nationally and internationally. However, concerted efforts are also required for investment in storage facilities and adequate protection of the stock in between cropping patterns as well as providing credit linkages.

Today, despite multiple government policies and schemes aimed at the promotion of millets, Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) are still largely concentrated only in a few Indian states. To make India a millet hub, expansion of these geographic regions is necessary, and it’s important that each state and union territory play a role in the value chain in the coming years.

India is among the largest producers of millets in the world, but we need to aim to increase funding for demand in addition to supply. One such way to do this is to increase the use of the grains in government institutions and schemes. Given the multi-fold health and nutrition benefits of millets, rigorous efforts need to be made towards increasing their use in government schemes such as mid-day meals. Nutri-cereals can play a key role in substantiating the nutrition that the meals provide, helping alleviate problems like anaemia.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. It will take an army of policymakers, farmers, entrepreneurs, retailers, consumers, and citizens to come together to get millets back where they belong — at the centre of our plate.

Meghana Narayan and Shauravi Malik are co-founders of Wholsum Foods. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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