Millets, as we know, belong to the category of drought-tolerant, nutrient-rich grains primarily grown in arid and semi-arid regions of India and other countries. Due to their high protein, vitamin, and mineral content, millets are considered nutritionally superior to wheat, rice, and other grains. Consequently, in order to raise awareness about the nutritional and health benefits of millets, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations have designated 2023 as the International Year of Millets, or IYM2023. Moreover, the Indian government played a significant role in this designation, as they suggested it to the United Nations, and with the support of other countries, this initiative became a reality.
Today, millets have taken center stage in the news, featuring extensively across various media sources due to the G20 summit held in India. This is evident from the news headlines bombarding us with captions such as ‘Millet-based menu served at G20 Summit: Discover its health benefits,’ ‘From Chatpati Chaat to millet: World leaders to be served an ‘all-vegetarian’ menu,’ ‘G-20 Dinner: Exploring the flavors of Bharat served on the ‘All-Vegetarian’ Menu,’ and ‘President Droupadi Murmu hosted a grand dinner for G20 guests in New Delhi, featuring a menu of dishes made from millets and Kashmiri Kahwa,’ among others.
Similarly, millets have also made their way onto the menus of other international forums and conferences in recent times. This concerted effort is aimed at increasing awareness within the international community about the health and nutritional advantages of millets. However, it raises essential questions about food security for the poorer and marginalized populations, who often suffer from malnutrition and inadequate access to food. How can we ensure their quality of life, health and nutrition? Will global-level awareness and what some may call propaganda have any meaningful impact? One must ponder whether these efforts will translate into improved access to quality food and better health for the poorest and malnourished individuals in India and other developing countries. It will be intriguing to see if the G20 community formulates any policies regarding millets that can guarantee food security for these vulnerable populations.
The paradox is striking; millets as a staple diet, once termed “coarse cereals” and “cereals of the poor,” have in contemporary times transformed into the “food of the richest, affluent and the elites.” It is no longer considered a staple of the poor. As the saying goes, ‘those who build houses do not often reside in them,’ and similarly, ‘farmers who cultivate millets do not typically consume them.’ Studies have revealed that millets play a crucial role in India’s ecological and food security. They have the potential to provide millions of resource-poor farmers and their families with a significant source of food, nutrition, and fodder. However, the government’s strategies, interventions, and policies appear to contradict this potential.
The IYM-2023 year has significantly boosted the global demand for nutri-cereals, and this demand is gradually increasing. The Department of Commerce anticipates a substantial rise in millet exports from India in the coming years as Indian exporters explore new markets abroad. India stands as one of the top producers and suppliers of millets, with numerous regions within the country where they can be sourced. Principal millet-growing states in India include Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh. In the fiscal year 2022–2023, India exported cereals worth 13,857.95 USD million, with millets being a significant contributor to these exports. India has successfully exported millets to 139 countries worldwide. Additionally, value-added millet products from India are making their way across the globe. This underscores India’s potential to play a leading role in the global supply chain for millets and their value-added products.
The government has taken several initiatives to support this endeavor, such as organizing ‘The Global Millets (Shree Anna) Conference’ held in New Delhi from March 18 to 22, 2023. The objectives of this conference included promoting millet exports from India, facilitating connections between producers and markets, and raising awareness about the benefits of millet consumption, particularly among young people and children. These strategic interventions align with trade-oriented policies and create opportunities for major corporate players to advocate for millets, as India aims to become a global hub for Sri Ann or Millets. This aligns with market-oriented reform policies that emphasize privatization, a significant element of neoliberalism and its policies.
Furthermore, it’s essential not to overlook the efforts of state-driven millet missions. Many states are actively promoting millets, both in terms of production and consumption within their regions. However, a crucial question remains: will summits like the G20 primarily boost millet production for the plates of the wealthy, or will there be policies aimed at enhancing millet consumption among the poor, where it is most needed?
While millets have made their way into farmers’ fields for production, their local consumption requires prioritization and strategic government intervention. The integration and inclusion of millets in policies and schemes should be designed to ensure that they reach the plates of the poor and malnourished. Although millets have reached the production stage, they still require specific measures to make them accessible to those who need them the most.
Additionally, the National Food Security Act, 2013, was enacted by the Indian Parliament to guarantee the right to food for everyone in the nation. This act encompasses various schemes such as the Public Distribution System, the Midday Meal Scheme, and the Integrated Child Development Services scheme. The question arises: why haven’t we seen policies that integrate or include millets into these existing distribution systems? Doing so could significantly enhance domestic outreach and millet consumption among the poor and needy, providing them with essential health and nutritional benefits.
On the flip side, people from the upper class have access to a wide range of food options to fulfill their health and nutritional needs. Therefore, millets should be prioritized as a superfood for the poor and made more affordable, available, and accessible to them. Inclusive and pro-poor policies related to the distribution and consumption of millets are needed to address the existing issues of food security. This calls for a shift in strategy and policy intervention, emphasizing practical implementation rather than mere propaganda and promotion.
The success of the Millets Mission hinges on the government’s active intervention, particularly in supporting millet production, consumption, distribution, availability, and accessibility for the benefit of the poor and marginalized, who are in the greatest need. The government’s role should encompass ensuring that millets are not only accessible but also available to all, regardless of their purchasing power, eliminating any barriers that may hinder their access.
Geeta Sinha, Associate Professor, Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O.P. Jindal Global University, India.