atta mill

Will recent changes sound the death knell of good old atta chakki, oil press and small rice mill?

In a recent widely publicized scheme the new AAP government in Punjab has announced that instead of supplying wheat in public distribution, the government will supply atta or wheat flour right at the footstep of consumers.

While this is generally seen as a scheme to benefit consumers, another aspect of the scheme also deserves attention. The wheat milled at the government level will be milled by big flour mills while the wheat milled at single customer level is milled in small chakkis.

This will greatly reduce the number of customers who go to cottage scale atta chakkis which at present often find a place even in a small Indian bazaar and even in a rural market. The atta chakki may not be able to survive this sudden  reduction of customers and may be phased out in Punjab or in other places where such schemes are introduced. Subsequently, if some persons want to get their wheat milled, they may not find an atta chakki nearby and after some time the entire practice of cottage scale wheat milling may stop. If farmers want to get into a direct relationship of selling wheat to customers, or if groups of customers want to buy more healthy and organic wheat from certain farmers, at a practical level the scope for this may no longer be there if an atta chakki does not exist nearby.

In Uttarakhand and many other hilly areas many more villagers had livelihoods based on water mills called ghrats  which use the energy of flowing water in small hill streams to mill wheat or other grains. However once wheat was replaced by flour in ration shops the livelihoods based on water mills declined rapidly. However people still recall the special flavor of flour obtained from ghrats as these used to mill at a very slow pace. The maize milled in ghrat is even tastier.

This is just one of the several changes leading to the steady decline of small and cottage scale food processing in India. A similar trend can be seen in the case of rice. The union government has recently announced a very fast schedule of spreading rice fortification in India. According to this schedule the supply of fortified rice to ICDS, mid-day meals, other nutrition and welfare schemes as well as to the vast public distribution system is to be completed by the year 2024.

This decision has been contested on several grounds, one aspect being that there can be health problems arising from excess intakes of some of the micro nutrients like iron and vitamins. The fact that such excess can lead to several health problems is well-established, as is the fact that this is much more likely to arise from artificial fortification than from natural foods. The process of fortification involving processing in heavy machines can also lead to some undesirable residual products finding their way to our food.

In the case of fortified rice if the fortified kernels do not blend optimally with normal rice, the consumer can be confused regarding whether there are some undesirable contaminants to be removed. There can be pressure to use only those rice varieties that blend well, and in the process the pressure to reduce rice biodiversity can increase. The next step can be to promote only a few rice varieties, or to give a better price for only such varieties, or even to root for patented or GM varieties in the name of varieties that blend well.

While the need is to encourage smaller, village-level processing of rice and all other food, generating local livelihoods, this rice fortification will take us in the opposite direction of further increasing centralization and control of a few big businesses. The idea of local village-level rice processing will be dashed forever. It will become difficult to establish even a cottage industry based on rice produced in the nearby fields of this village as the rice grown here cannot be used directly without fortification.

Now rice processing will be in the hands of those big companies including multinational companies which control fortification technology. Other rice millers, only the bigger among them, will survive only after taking loans and adding the new expensive machinery, and then too only as the junior partners of those who control fortification technology, who can keep dictating to them to make this improvement or that improvement in  processing and machinery, also imposing more costs on them.

It has been seen time and again that staple food becomes more expensive once its processing passes into the hands of big business interests. To give an example, even at the time of influx of cheap corn in Mexico as a result of Free Trade Agreement with the USA, the price of staple food tortillas remained high because the maize milling and flour industry was concentrated in a few big business units. Thus farmers lost (due to higher maize imports) and consumers also lost.

In the case of indigenous rice varieties it is often stated that the flavor improves with time. So it has been usual to store and eat somewhat later. The shelf life of the fortified rice kernels is stated to be only around 12 months or so. So it is likely that fortified rice if kept beyond this time may start getting spoilt. We need to remember that storage periods in FCI warehouses can be quite long, and then transport across vast distances, ultimately to fair price shops takes its own time too.

An important need in India is for highly decentralized procurement so that a significant part of the food procured in a village ends up in the same village’s fair price shops and nutrition programs, reducing food miles in a big way, good both for environment and food security. Mandatory food fortification can shut the door on such ideas.

Even official reviews say that the need for fortification arises because present-day milling removes essential nutrients from rice in a big way. Hence the most obvious way is to move away from milling which indulges in excessive removal and polishing to milling which results in much lower removal and polishing, reducing this as much as possible. Such technology is certainly available and so the real solution is actually very simple and inexpensive. Small scale milling is very compatible with such concerns of saving the nutrition values of natural food.

This is even more true in the context of not just nutritive but even medicinal value of cottage scale milling units of traditional oilseeds like mustard, sesame and groundnut. Almost all traditional oilseeds are amenable to cottage-scale milling. However the government has consistently promoted those edible oil giving crops like soybeans which need large-scale processing, and now the government is going in for the most destructive course of relying more on promoting palm oil plantations based on big factory processing units linked to plantations created by removing forests or local biodiversity based farms, mostly in ecologically sensitive areas like the North-East and Andaman Nicobar. The entire  process is not only ecologically destructive and polluting, but in addition will also sound the death knell of cottage scale processing of most nutritious and healthy traditional oilseeds.

We are at an important stage when cottage and small scale food processing is being threatened like perhaps never before, and along with this nutrition and health as well as very rich food traditions are  also threatened. In the 75th year of independence it may be worth recalling that Mahatma Gandhi was one of the strongest supporters of cottage scale food processing, and Gandhian institutions have been in the forefront of protecting this. We are now on the brink of losing this very useful heritage. However, if the enormity of the loss we will suffer can be widely realized, something can still be done to prevent this great loss.

 The writer is author of ‘Man over Machine’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.’


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