“Kodo kutki hatao soyabean lagao” was a popular slogan in the erstwhile unified rural Madhya Pradesh till early 2000s, exhorting millet farmers to go in for oilseeds crop, recalls veteran farm scientist A Seetharam. He spent almost four decades at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) working on millets such as ragi and kutki.
But with the Centre and various State governments adopting a mission-mode approach to promote the once-forgotten cereals, Seetharam sees farm policy coming full circle. Till recently, these grains were called coarse cereals. Now, they have been renamed as nutri-cereals, which are naturally rich in nutrients such as iron, zinc and calcium, among others.
Last week, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh said the Centre was promoting millets on a ‘mission mode’ to achieve nutritional security. This year (2018) has been declared the Year of Millets. The Millet Mission, under the National Food Security Mission, is expected to be rolled out in April, for the next few years. While States such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have already taken steps to promote millets, Odisha announced a ₹100-crore mission last week.
Return to millets
These nutrient-rich grains are making a quick comeback in the Indian agrarian landscape after decades of institutional neglect. Development agencies and farmers ignored these cereals in favour of rice, wheat and other crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Millets can grow in poor soil conditions with less water, fertiliser and pesticides. They can withstand higher temperatures, making them the perfect choice as ‘climate-smart’ cereals.
“As against the requirement of 5,000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice, millets need hardly 250-300 litres,” says Prabhakar of the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Small Millets. As urban consumers cope with a range of lifestyle-related disorders, these grains are gradually gaining in popularity.
Small millets such as kodo and kutki, among others, have a cultivation history of 3,000-5,000 years and were major food crops once upon a time. They could be the potential new tools for the government to fight socio-economic issues such as malnutrition and rural poverty while addressing sustainability concerns.
“Millets are grown in about 21 States. There is a major impetus in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. We are trying to push millets in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland, because it is a major staple diet for the tribes in that region,” says Vilas Tonapi, Director, Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad.
In 2016-17, the area under millets stood at 14.72 million hectares, down from 37 million ha in 1965-66, prior to the pre-Green Revolution era. This decline was largely due to change in dietary habits (induced by a cultural bias against millets post-Green Revolution), low-yield of millets, and conversion of irrigated area towards rice and wheat.
Though farmers have been cultivating major millets such as jowar, bajra and ragi, production has been volatile largely due to concerns over low productivity and profitability. Production of millets stood at 16.14 million tonnes in 2016-17, of which, minor millets such as foxtail and kodo millets was 4.5 lakh tonnes.