The United Nation has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. Since that was at the initiative of India, which also accounts for a fifth of the world’s millets production, Narendra Modi government would be expected to do something different this year to promote these “nutria-cereals” – going beyond just spreading awareness, or organizing “particular millets lunch” for parliamentarians and journalists.
So what can the government do? Millets score over rice and wheat in terms of minerals, vitamins and dietary fibre contents, as well as amino acid profile. Polished / white rice, for instance, contains only 2-4 mg/ kg iron and 15-16 mg/ zink. wheat has more of both—iron and zinc but its protein quality is poorer than even that of rice.
Bajra, on the other hand, has iron, zinc, protein levels comparable to that of wheat, but it’s gluten—free and has more fibre. The rotis from bajra make one feel fuller for longer, as they take more time to digest and do not raise blood sugar levels too fast.
The same nutritionally superior traits—which significantly address to problem of “hidden hunger” arising from the consumption of energy-dense but micronutrients—deficient foods are present in other millets too.
Nutritional advantage apart, millets are hardly and drought-resistant crops. This has to do with their short duration (70-100 days against 115-150 days for rice and wheat), lower water requirement and ability to grow even on poor soil and hilly terrain.
However, millets aren’t the first choice either of consumers or of farmers. aspiration foods. But thanks to the green revolution and National Food Security act, two third of India’s population receives up to 5 kg of wheat or rice per person per month at Rs 2 and Rs 3 kg respectively. The Modi government has, in fact, made the issue of the two fine cereals free of cost from further titling the scales against millets.
Even for the better—off, rolling roties is easier with wheat than millets flour. This is because the gluten proteins, for all their drawbacks, make the wheat dough and elastic. The resultant bread comes light and puffy, which isn’t the case with bajra or jowar.
For farmers, low per—hectare yields—the national average is roughly I tones for Jowar, 1.5 tonnes for bajra and 1.7 tonnes for ragi, as against 3.5 tonnes for wheat and 4 tonnes for paddy— are disincentive. With access to assured irrigation, they would tend to switch to Wheat, Sugarcane, or cotton.
The Indian Agricultural Research Institute has bred Pusa—1201, a hybrid bajra that gives an average grain yield of over 2.8 tonnes and potential of 4.5 tonnes per hectare. It matures in 78—80 days and is resistant to downy mildew and blast, both deadly fungus diseases. The grains have 23 — 14 % protein, 55 mg/kg zinc (normal level is 50mg/kg) and 48mg / kg zinc (normal: 35mg/kg). But the absence of government procurement at minimum support price, unlike in paddy and wheat would make farmer hesitant to grow even this high yielding and naturally bio-fortified bajra, suitable for both post—monsoon kharif and summer (after harvesting of potato or mustard in February—March with 1—2 irrigations) cultivation. (IPA Service)