Why India’s ongoing millet mission is an exercise in culinary homogenization


With the year 2023 declared as the international year of millets, India has witnessed numerous State led initiatives to promote the production and consumption of the “forgotten grain”. While the initiative to promote millets in the country deserves praise for raising awareness about the nutritional value of forgotten grains like bajra, ragi, foxtail and a plethora of millets that are indigenous to India, there is much more that needs to be done for the project to become successful.

This article is concerned about the larger socio economic and cultural context of India against which millet consumption is promoted as a national project. Within the rising political climate of Hindu majoritarianism and a revamping of India’s multifaceted traditions in favor of a monolithic and aspirational “Hindu” past, millet mission occupies an important strand in the larger cultural project of Hindutva. The heavily State backed promotion of the super food is a continuation of a larger cultural project where minority cultural symbols and traditions are disparaged as part of government’s concerted efforts to create a Hindu rashtra. The discontinuation of Iftar parties by the Modi government is a case in point here. The hijab ban  issued in schools in Karnataka in February 2022 offers an another example of the way clothes were politically targeted to polarize the institutional space of education, just as the advertisement of Halal meat in front of restaurants was taken up by Hindu right wing organizations as a form of “economic jihad”

Millet revolution marks a shift in the narrative of contemporary food politics in India-characterized by digital media cultures, urban middle class consumption cultures, global discourse of  health, wellness and sustainable consumption.
In a book written  by Edward Anderson and Arkotong Longkumer titled Neo Hindutva : Evolving forms, expressions and meanings of Hindutva published in 2020, the authors discuss emerging contexts, forms and significations that Hindutva has come to occupy in urban India. The book draws attention to the permeation of Hindutva cultural ideology and values into new and diverse socio cultural contexts in contemporary India. New articulation of the Hindutva rhetoric, which is termed as “Neo hindutva”, is different from standard Hindutva rhetoric  which situates debates around vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism as reflective of communal politics within public imagination. In contrast, within new Hindutva framework, Hindu ideological values are reimagined as “egalitarian” by “moving beyond communal identity politics”.

Political engagement with “healthy” eating and vegetarian food occupies a continuum in the activities of Hindu nationalist organizations that have previously used the vocabulary of “seva”, as seen through the activities of religious organizations such as the RSS, to build and strengthen organizational networks and mobilize support for Hindu nationalism. The immensely successful Akshaya Patra school meal program, which began as an initiative of the ISKON trust now runs in partnership with PM POSHAN (Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman) to provide mid-day meals to children in government schools. The example of Akshaya Patra is a classic example of the entanglement of religion with and ideas of seva and social welfare which together shape the food choices of school children from a very young age. Marginalization of dietary choices such as that of eggs through its exclusion from initiatives that operate under ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) is justified on the grounds of Hindu upper caste cultural traditions. Let us take the example of Gujarat, one of the most urbanized states in India, which according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 5) has performed abysmally low in parameters of malnutrition and anemia of children under five years of age. My own fieldwork experiences in anganwadis in Palaj and Basan villages of Gandhinagar in the year 2018 revealed the absence of milk in the daily meal program, and the disinterest that many kids expressed towards the fortified food such as balbhog offered as part of the government meal scheme. When enquired about the reasons for the avoidance of balbhog, I was told that kids easily get bored with its monotonous taste and they gravitate towards the chatpata flavors available in 2 Rs and 5 Rs namkeen packets. Many kids openly acknowledged their love for eggs, which unfortunately was not part of the mid-day meal or PM POSHAN scheme of Gujarat. The parents of anganwadi kids largely relied on snack packets that were sold in bulk quantities and surprisingly cheap prices in shops located outside the school premises. In the three days of field work, I learnt of the ubiquitous place of  ready to eat snack packets in the lives of poor children, for whom namkeen was the first meal of the day.  When asked about the consumption of these high sodium, nutrient deficit snacks, anganwadi workers talked about their helplessness and inability to control the preferences of children. In the absence of a nourishing meal, these kids often lack attentiveness and energy to engage in mind stimulating activities. Even though these observations were shared and discussed with authorities from Women and Child Development (WCD) department in Gandhinagar, my meeting with them was taken as an opportunity to share the positive benefits of the current schemes, revealing their unwillingness to take up responsibility of the ground reality.

The beneficiaries of government sponsored schemes are often Dalits whose tastes and dietary preferences do not comply with the prescribed vegetarian code. Against this context, the much hyped millet promotion comes across as quite ambitious, deflecting one’s attention away from ground  realities where initiatives such as Poshan Abhiyan or National Nutrition mission (NNM) has consistently failed to address the health and wellbeing of a young and vulnerable population and rescue them from the quagmire of poverty.

Promoting millets as a magical solution to revamp health of the nation seems far-fetched and misplaced in a context where the choices and tastes of the poor and the minority are constantly derided upon.  Against such a context, the public promotion of millets is but a clear move towards a restructuring of gastronomic sensibilities and a national codification of vegetarian dietary regime.

The new logics of the Hindutva is couched within the language of global consumer cultures and urban middle class aspirations.  Just as the successful adoption of yoga into the health and wellness regime of India is illustrative of the underlying nationalist agenda to unify a heterogenous population, food is  strategically used to gain acceptance among a wider section of the population who may not be committed to Hindu nationalist ideologies, but show allegiance to its cultures, nevertheless. It is through the incorporation of diverse religious and communitarian identities within the Hindu cultural fold that neo Hindutva cultures extend its presence in urbanizing India. For example, by encouraging different communities to participate in millet food festivals and cooking contests, vegetarian cooking transforms into a secular exercise.

Contemporary food politics thrives on a silent politics of exclusion which is supported through global food fads. With the western gastronomic world acknowledging the value and hidden benefits of many indigenous products through its inclusion in gourmet recipes, Indian gastronomy too has shifted attention towards the “poor man’s food” , which paradoxically has become a rich man’s food now, thanks to the government’s millet mission. In the process, Indian vegetarian ideology is often conflated with the significantly different western vegetarianism, a process that yet again mainstreams and normalizes vegetarian ideology as a quintessential and unquestionable  culinary tradition of India.

Just as notions of health are firmly rooted in one’s regional cultural context, one’s idea of comfort food, choice and taste are deeply influenced by class, caste and religion. These factors need to be accounted for when an initiative as large as the millet mission is implemented as part of a nation-wide program soon to be included in anganwadi meal programs.

Millet Mission will undoubtedly boost start up ecosystems, such as Slurp farm, which uses a millets as a marketing strategy to sell their products. These snacks often use a blend of millet and other familiar grains such as wheat in curating products that appears nutritious and at the same time tasty. However, these initiatives are targeted at a specific consumer segment with purchasing power.

It is pertinent to understand the deeper implications of a highly labor intensive cultivation process for the farmers and the marginalized communities, and how a shifting dietary regime resonates among the lower middle class and a vast segment of the middle class with less purchasing power. Whether the millet revolution will transform middle class dietary choices and uplift Indian agrarian sector or pave way to exploitation of precarious labor for the global capitalist market to feed on is yet to be seen. It is imperative to reflect on India’s dynamic and expansive foodscapes and take account of the heterogeneity of culinary practices that cut across caste, class, religious and community networks in order to design sustainable and inclusive dietary model that will benefit everyone.

Jerene is a doctoral student in Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar. Her research focusses on the cultural politics of food in Gujarat.


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