The Centre’s plan to turn fair price shops into ‘nutrition hubs’ promoting millets is praiseworthy. Fair price shop agents will privately procure millets and their derivatives, and distribute them through their outlets. This entails an expansion of the scope of their operations, for which they will be financed by Small Industries Development Bank of India and trained by the National Institute of Small Enterprise and Development presumably in entrepreneurship and other skills relevant to this activity. According to a report in this newspaper, all the country’s 5.38 lakh fair price shops will be roped into this programme. But it is important to get the details of the latest fair price shop revamp scheme right so that India is able to create livelihoods on the production and distribution side. The basic challenge lies in creating millets demand.

Millets output and area under cultivation has been falling over the decades, including recent years. This is despite the fact that minimum support prices have been raised sharply by this government, alongside pulses. Millets has struggled to find takers because it still bears the age-old stigma of being a socially ‘inferior’ food. Now, the reality has changed completely. Rice and wheat are available for free at ration shops, as a result of which millets are being consumed largely out of choice. These consumers are of two types: those who engage in physical work and find millet-based meals filling; and the urban well-to-do who consume millets because they regard it as a ‘super food’.

Millet consumption is well established in the top growing States of Rajasthan (bajra), Maharashtra (jowar) and Karnataka (ragi). Millets sell at a higher price (upwards of 30 per cent) than wheat or ordinary quality rice, which poses challenges to its adoption at a ration shop level. In order to massify demand beyond rural users who use their own produce and the premium urban market, the resistance to millets born out of its taste and texture needs to be countered. Food research institutes have their task cut out. Only with demand can output increase (India produces 15 million tonnes, 40 per cent of global output) and prices fall.

It may be a good idea to initially promote or start the scheme in the millet growing regions, with a tradition of millet consumption. Ration shop owners/agents are expected to source from farmer producer organisations locally to make the exercise cost-effective. FPOs should receive a policy boost, coinciding with the focus on revamping ration shops. The latter need to be revamped and run transparently to rid them of their air of seediness. The Centre and States need to work together without acrimony and suspicion. Finally, millets must become a staple all over again. They consume less water and other inputs, while being beneficial for a country where non-communicable diseases (diabetes, hypertension and cardiac issues) are on the rise.