National Nutrition Week 2023 is here, and it also happens to be the International Year of Millets. In the run up to the G20 summit being held in New Delhi on 9-10 September, millets have also been added to the centerpiece menu for the many international dignitaries.
India has a rich history of millets. We absolutely cannot undermine the indigenous women who possess immense wisdom on millets, applying it to preserve the millets ecosystem, biodiversity and maintaining the chain of health, nutrition, culture, and food from farm to plate.
Millets In'Grained' in Our Culture
Through indigenous wisdom passed down from one generation to the other – through folktales, poems, songs, limericks, etc – there is a mention of millets being stored in underground pits by kings and landowners for as long as 80 years – that were then later dug up during droughts creating ponds.
This is an excerpt from a very popular song among the Gonds which also mentions millets –
“संकनी डंकनी इंद्रावती कोदो कुटकी बोडा छाती छापड़ा चटनी बासी भात परब नाचा गुलाय रातl”
Rivers - Shankini, Dankini, Indravati; Millets - Kodo Kutki; Bastar’s famous
Mushrooms; Red Aunt Chutney; Leftover rice; Festivals; Dancing all night
Women would also sing to call for support to other women for the backbreaking work of de-weeding millets, and “bribe” them with a feast of millets then.
There is also an unsaid expectation and norm that if you are to marry someone from Bastar, you’re sure to savour a millets feast.
Madiya (finger millets) Pech is a famous delicacy here but it is also a savior for the indigenous women who are out there in forests collecting produce for their livelihoods, at times for days, and they carry this pech in a bamboo container, which gives them the energy and stamina that they need.
Paradoxical Fix of Millet Poverty
It’s a myth that people are not aware about millets. Millets have gained prominence globally but are still on the plates of the niche, the poor, or the marginalised.
There is a huge gap to be filled where millets have a very little place in terms of environment, sensitisation, and adoption.
Millets have mentions and are evidenced in the Vedas and even before that. According to a recent survey by the Development Intelligence Unit of the TRI, the highest level of awareness on millets was in Chhattisgarh, but the state also has a high rate of malnutrition.
While the world owes the indigenous communities a huge amount of credit for preserving millets and especially the sustainable and indigenous practices right from production to consumption, these communities are also among the most vulnerable and three times more likely to be poor.
Even in 2023, nutrition continues to bear the highest burden of multi-dimensional poverty. That’s quite a paradoxical fix.
But, despite all this, there is a pattern of inheritance like “millet poverty” – a condition where these communities desired and aspired to make millets mainstream but couldn’t.
However, efforts are now being put in collectively by CSOs, NGOs, and the government for collaborating and facilitates these processes. Kodo and Kutki now have MSP. They have found a place in the PM Fasal Bima Yojana as well which provides paddy-equivalent safety net. Many women-run millet cafes are being promoted too.
But all this also has to translate to cultural empowerment and climate empowerment. Chhattisgarh’s development is not only guided by growth, endowments, and investments... but also culture.
The indigenous communities should be able to take decisions on millets production, consumption, preservation, marketing, and carry out what is meaningfully and culturally desirable for them.
There are myths that millets have a homogenous consumer base and that the rural population buys whatever is offered to them. But rural consumerism around millets is a function of knowing what they’re buying, choice, access, pack mentality, quality, and also nutritional value.
Healthy for All in Some Way or the Other
Even in rural areas, where awareness around non-communicable diseases is growing, millets are useful food for people with celiac diseases and gluten intolerance.
Since millets have low glycemic index, high dietary fiber, and are rich in antioxidants, they can help people with obesity, diabetes, and other lifestyle conditions.
Millets are beneficial for pregnant women and lactating mothers owing to higher contents of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Bajra (pearl millet), being a good source of folic acid, can help prevent neural tube defects in unborn babies, if supplemented early on in pregnancy. It is also known to prevent anaemia, owing to its good iron content. It is beneficial in later stages of pregnancy and during peripartum period too.
Millets can be a game changer for combating malnutrition, especially among children under five years of age in India.
Breaking the Interlock
There is a need to ride on the health consciousness that has exploded after the pandemic.
To break this paradoxical interlock, consumption and supply of millets should be mapped to several disease prevention and control programmes such as NCD and anaemia control, MNCH and nutrition programmes, etc.
This holds more rationale in states where the production of millets is comparatively high, such as:
There is a trend emerging around eating a balanced meal, seeking a diet that emphasises low sugar, low carbohydrates, low calories, and high protein.
Consumerism has touched more than 60 percent of the rural population. Markets are currently influencing but not yet participating as stakeholders in millets.
The marketing of millets has traditionally been guided by “Four Ps” - product, price, place, and promotion.
There is a need to add “people” so that they can become part of the product and product becomes a part of them, bringing in humanity, indigenous culture, and rights to the core and the fore of the millets ecosystem.
A lot of buzz around millets is being created and a fad is currently engulfing but on the periphery. Going forward, the environment building needs to penetrate the rural areas to sustain this fad and translate it into food.
Millet friendly policies for both production and consumption are required as is their linkage to PDS, MDM, and ICDS. We need to strategise differently for different contexts. Tax exemptions on millets products are required.
Investments, partnerships, strengthening value chains, cuisines and recipe development, private sector “stakeholderism,” and a culture – all need to come together to make millets mainstream.
Neeraja Nitin Kudrimoti is the lead and action pilots head in Chhattisgarh at Transform Rural India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)