Nearly six decades after the Green Revolution, it appears that the wheel with respect to the general perception on millets is coming full circle. After being reduced to marginal status during the Green Revolution years, millets are slowly regaining favour among policymakers and consumers. Faced with a food shortage in the 1960s, India opted for an input-intensive push that yielded huge productivity gains in wheat and rice. But now the times have changed; India is self-sufficient in wheat and rice output.

But the health effects of wheat and rice overconsumption and the impact on the production side on soil and water resources are no longer in dispute. The Centre observed with regret while heralding the New Year as ‘International Year of Millets’ that millets output in India accounted for 40 per cent of all cultivated grains till the 1960s, against about 16 per cent at present, or 45-50 million tonnes a year now. Millets, with their iron, calcium and zinc content, can make a big difference in combating micro-nutrient deficiency in India, besides diabetes and heart disease. Meanwhile, farmers growing millets can make do with 20 cm of rain annually, against 120-140 cm needed for rice. That millets are by default organic — since the crop does not rely on chemicals and pesticides and its essentially small growers lack the resources to use them — actually makes it a big draw in a world where organic produce is in demand. What is not working for millets is its poor prices, low productivity, processing difficulties and above all, insufficient demand. Prices will rise and infrastructure will come up if demand improves, even as research on hybrids is expected to lift yields.

Government agencies at the States and Centre are trying out two approaches to lift demand. First, States such as Odisha are raising rural demand through awareness campaigns, while also distributing millet-based meals through mid-day meal programmes in schools and anganwadis, an approach that is likely to boost market prices, particularly if there is a procurement process to back this up. The second approach is to lift urban demand through promotional campaigns. A NABARD paper has suggested that millet foods be served on trains and flights. Ready to cook millets can work for the young in particular. It is possible that as urban demand picks up, it will challenge the decades-old notion of millets being a non-aspirational food meant for the downtrodden. The Centre has raised MSP for millets, but in the absence of procurement and demand (the former being weak because of the latter), prices have not picked up.

Production of millets in India, grown primarily in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, accounts for 41 per cent of global output. Yet, India is only the fifth largest exporter, earning barely $30 million annually. Being grown by small farmers in dry regions, it is ideally suited to Farmer Producer Organisations. The Budget should give millets a financial and institutional push.