Coarse cereals, recently renamed ‘nutri-cereals’ by the government, will get the policy support for expansion of cultivation and consumption, if a report of a high-level panel is implemented. Millets such as jowar, bajra and ragi have long been staples for the poor in India, but their production steadily declined over decades due to aggressive promotion of rice and wheat. Low margins for farmers in the absence of a favourable policy is also a reason. In the case of ragi and jowar, minimum support prices don’t even cover costs of production right now.
Recommending a course correction, which will also address acute malnutrition among a large section of population, especially women and children, the panel, headed by NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand, has recommended that even as PDS prices of wheat and rice are raised under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), prices of millets be kept unchanged to spur demand.
“In due course, once supply of millets under the PDS improves, out of monthly 5-kg basket per person (NFSA) entitlement, 1 kg may be made mandatory for millets,” the panel said in its report. Under the NFSA, selling prices of wheat and rice were fixed at `2/kg and `3/kg, respectively, in 2013. Although prices were to be revised every three years, no revision has taken place as any hike is politically difficult. The rate of coarse cereals, including millets, was kept at `1/kg, but these have rarely been disbursed. In fact, expect Karnataka, no other state actively undertakes procurement of millets.
Since the acreage of millet declined by 60% to 14.72 million ha in 2017 from 36.9 million ha in 1966, the panel expressed hope that the Budget proposal of offering an MSP higher than 50% of the cost for millets would help increase the area under cultivation. Bbonuses for millet cultivation may also be provided to further incentivise farmers, it said. Owing to the neglect over the years in promoting consumption of these nutri-cereals, nutrients like protein, Vitamin-A, iron and iodine levels are low among large sections of population, especially women and children.
In 2016, India ranked 131 of 188 nations in human development indices with major inter-state and intra-district variations. Nearly 40% of children born in India are stunted and underweight while almost 50% of mothers are anaemic. On nutrition, India even lags its neighbours.
To increase nutritional security of vulnerable groups, the panel suggested that “in addition to supply millets under the PDS, states also need to promote the same under schemes like the mid-day meal scheme and Integrated Child Development Scheme. Incentives for cultivation of millets would also complement the government’s efforts to double farmers income by 2022.
According to the Indian Council of Medical Research, compared to rice, fox tail millet has 81% more protein, little millet has 840% higher fat, 350% higher fibre and 1,229% higher quantity of iron.
By Prasanta Sahu & Prabhudatta Mishra