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India's Nutrition Crisis: Can Govt's Millets Scheme Help Farmers & Boost Health?

Compared to other crops, millets bear lower risk of being pest-affected and also address deficiencies at a low cost.

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Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently presented the last full-fledged Budget for the second term of the Modi government in Parliament for 2023-24. Addressing the millet as 'Shri Anna', she proposed to bring these coarse grains back to the plate of the countrymen that were missing for many decades.

The launch of 'Shri Anna Yojana' in the budget is another attempt by the government to promote millet production. Initially, a scheme to encourage millet production was initiated by the government of Karnataka during 2013-14 under the UPA government. Farmers were provided financial support of Rs 10,000 per acre for growing millets on a rotational basis as backing in case of any loss due to market volatility or drought.

Recently, two farmers from Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh have also been honoured by the government with Padma Awards for conservation and research on coarse cereals, which shows the seriousness and commitment of the government to this subject matter.

It is imperative to understand the importance of millet production and how it can be a viable tool to reduce the burden of undernutrition and a mechanism to increase the income of farmers as well.

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India's Millets Mission's Global Appeal

This year will have significant and far-reaching implications for Indian politics. While India has gotten a golden opportunity to preside over the G20, at the same time as a result of the government's efforts since 2018, India's suggestions have now been recognised by the World Food Organization and the United Nations.

Considering this, 2023 has been termed the 'International Millet Year'. This decision reflects India's political, economic, and strategic importance on the world stage.
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Millets are primarily known for their nutritive and health properties, easy availability, and use in food ingredients that can help solve many related problems. Irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides and the requirement of labour are significantly less than other crops due to which there will undoubtedly be an improvement in the economic condition of the farmers, and their dreams of being self-sufficient realised.

If seen historically, millet colloquially referred to as a coarse grain, is described in our Vedic texts, other religious texts, and historical events. In addition to the well-known epic Abhigyan Shakuntalam of Mahakavi Kalidas, there is evidence of millets’ use in agriculture and as a food item in Yajurveda and Satpatha Brahmana. Mohenjodaro and Harappa, two ancient civilisations of the Indian subcontinent also have evidence of the consumption of millets.

But for a long time after the invasion of the colonial powers not only in India but also in African countries, the production and preservation of these nutritious coarse grains decreased. They emphasised the production of rice and other cereals more than millets because they believed that the grains used here were more nutritious and beneficial than coarse grains.

It was also found from the records of the British Raj that after some time, they recognised the nutritional and health benefits of millet, yet they needed to pay more attention to the subject because of their policies.

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Do India's Agro Capabilities Meet Nutrition Crisis?

It would have been wise to address the historical significance of India's agricultural system and its modern relevance to science. During colonialism, a significant amount of work was done to refute the scientific validity and usefulness of the practice. However, production and preservation were only prioritised after the country gained independence.

An examination of the available evidence and research materials, demonstrates that there has always been a supply of food grains in the agricultural system of our nation, which is accomplished by utilising practices that are native to the area, and that our country has always been involved in the production of foods that are of high quality.

The British government's economic and coercive policies led to several famines and food shortages in India, even though India has always been capable of producing its food on its own. Even during the height of the so-called "Green Revolution," financial and technical assistance was restricted to cultivating staple crops like wheat and rice. Consequently, the highly advantageous and nutrient-dense coarse grains started to disappear from the diets of the people in our country.

The prevalence of undernutrition in children, adolescent girls and women of reproductive age is a public health concern in India. The findings from the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS) and the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) documented the high prevalence of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency in India's children, adolescents, and women.

The recently concluded NFHS-5 results show how the prevalence of stunting, wasting, and being underweight in children and five remain high and marked only a marginal decline over five years. Currently, more than 35% of children are stunted, 19.3% are wasted, and 32.5% are underweight in the country, which is more than even the rate of many underdeveloped economies in the world.

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Comparing the under-nutrition population's prevalence since PM Modi came to the helm of power, the data published by the World Food and Agriculture Organization and World Bank clearly shows that the prevalence of the under-nutrition population has increased from 14.9% to 15.5% of the total population.

As per the estimates, India accounted for over one-fourth of the world's undernourished people in 2019. Although from 2014 to 2016, there was a decline in the rate of undernourishment, there has been a significant rise in malnourishment in India that poses serious public health concerns.

Compared to other crops, millets bear lower risk of being pest-affected and also address deficiencies at a low cost.

Figure 1- Caste wise Prevalence of Undernutrition in India.

NFHS 2-19-20

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Compared to other crops, millets bear lower risk of being pest-affected and also address deficiencies at a low cost.

Figure 2- State wise prevalence of Underweight in India

NFHS 2-19-20

Are Millets a Solution to India's Malnourishment Problem?

Several factors play crucial roles in chronic malnutrition in children. Some of the important ones are the mother's nutritional status, education, breastfeeding, the interval between pregnancies, early marriage, and poor sanitation. About 36% of women are underweight, and 56% of women and 56% of adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years old suffer from anaemia due to undernourishment in India.

Recently, in a segment of his programme called "Mann Ki Baat," the Prime Minister talked about the importance of promoting millet and its many positive effects on one's health as well as how increasing one's consumption of coarse grains can help alleviate the severe issue of malnutrition that plagues many states.

Increasing millet consumption is a cost-effective strategy to address the problem of many nutritional deficiencies in children, pregnant women and adolescents. Because of the effect they have on people's increasing immunity, particularly after the Covid pandemic, the usefulness of coarse grains in this phenomenon has increased even further.

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This is especially the case. Coarse grains are known for their exceptionally high levels of nutrients, such as vitamins B-6 and B-3 as well as iron, calcium, potassium, fibre, and zinc. These nutrients are beneficial in addressing issues of Type-1 and Type-2 diabetes, asthma, thyroid disease, uric acid, and other conditions.

Compared to the cultivation of refined grains, the production of coarse grains is relatively straightforward from a logistical and an economic perspective. Even in regions prone to drought, it can be produced; therefore, only rainwater is required.

The production of grains requires minimal effort and time which results in cost saving. Compared to other crops, there is a lower risk of being affected by pests and diseases; as a result, farmers need to apply less insecticide, and the chemical's adverse effects on the environment are also diminished.
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In conclusion, the government should bear in mind some additional aspects. The cultivation of millets should be encouraged based on rotation to balance the production of other crops and the production of coarse grains.

It is recommended that additional financial assistance be provided for the item to avoid losing them. Aside from this, the successful completion of its contract with the food processing industry after production will be essential to the achievement of both its policy and the targeted goal it has set for itself.

There is no doubt that if this programme is carried out without a hitch, our nation will be recognised worldwide as the Golden Bowl to feed billions of people, and we will also be one step closer to realising our dream of India becoming self-sufficient.

(Pankaj Kumar Mishra is a PhD scholar at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Mahesh Deshpande is a young Farmer from Karnataka. He did his Master in Social Worker from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  Nirmala Sitharaman   modi govt   Millets 

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