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Sreelatha Menon: Health food for rupee 1

The food security Act's provision for millets to every household is a magic bullet to attack malnutrition

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Sreelatha Menon

The food security Act has sought to address a nutritional imbalance in the public distribution system (PDS).

The Act, by providing for a kg of millet per person at Rs 1/kg, would be a big step towards filling a wide gap in nutrition caused by the popularisation of cereals at the cost of millets which, in pre-PDS days, was the staple diet in most parts of the country. Millets are known to provide more of every nutrient than wheat and rice. These are rich in protein, calcium, fibre, minerals and vitamins and, unlike rice, are almost medicinal in preventing and healing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity. Besides being hailed as the world's healthiest food, millets are easy to grow in rain-fed unirrigated areas, with nearly no inputs. A boost to millet cultivation would be a boost to agriculture, too.

Currently, the acreage for millets such as ragi, jowar, bajra and barley, along with their various varieties, is just half that of rice. While the acreage for millets is 18.6 million hectares, that of wheat is about 25 million hectares.

The average production of coarse cereals, including sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet (ragi), foxtail millet, little millet, barnyard millet, proso millet and kodo millet in the 2007-12 period was 39 million tonnes.

The challenge for the food security law isn't the availability of millets (India is the largest producer; the output in Nigeria, the second-largest producer, is about half the amount). The challenge is procuring coarse grains, as production is scattered across the country. The food security law doesn't clearly state how states would provide millets. As such, farmers such as Vijay Jhawandhia from Vidarbha term it lip service. "If you don't remunerate farmers, who would grow millets?" he asks.

The Millet Network of India (MINI), a group of millet growers brought together by the Deccan Development Society (DDS) of Andhra Pradesh, has been demanding subsidy of Rs 5,000 an acre for farmers growing millets. K Sandeep of MINI says if the government continues with centralised procurement for millets, it would lead to a problem. The solution, he adds, is decentralised procurement and distribution. The Karnataka government, in partnership with MINI, has already started a pilot for decentralised procurement of jowar and foxtail millets, besides wheat and rice, in Mysore and Bidar districts. Andhra Pradesh is also planning a similar project.

Two years ago, to increase millet acreage, MINI and DDS had provided subsidies of Rs 2,000 an acre to a few villages across eight states. MINI said through this scheme, it was able to add 7,000 acres to millet acreage. The challenge, according to MINI, is to bring millets back to plates in rural India, as the urban elite have already re-discovered millets and are triggering demand for it. In fact, this has made millets expensive and out of reach for the poor, says Sandeep.

While the food security law may lead to a boost in the cultivation and consumption of millets, the market may be the one seeing an immediate benefit. Already, multi-grain flour, biscuits, etc, are appearing on shop shelves. Many exporters are procuring sorghum and pearl millets from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to export it to Africa and Europe.

The agriculture ministry has a few schemes to promote millet cultivation, but MINI says these help only agriculture companies, not farmers. Though millets don't require inputs, hybrid seeds, chemical fertilisers or pesticides, the government package makes millet cultivation an expensive proposition.

While a quintal of cotton fetches a farmer about Rs 3,500, he earns Rs 2,500 a quintal for millets, without any investment. But if this advantage is taken away, and centralised procurement carried out, it would ensure millets don't reach the plates of the common man. And, a vital tool in fighting malnutrition would be lost.

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First Published: Sat, September 28 2013. 21:48 IST