The International Year of Millets (2023) is over. Should the story end here? True, it did provide a global platform for millets and ensured a worldwide recognition of their health benefits, thanks to India’s efforts. It also provided a launchpad for different types of millets and their products. Large multinational and Indian companies jumped on the platform and created attractive options for the consumer. Substantial opportunities were created by the government through various fora like G20, FAO and the UN. These will to go waste if India does not have a follow-up plan to expand the production of millets and to get higher value for its farmers. Unfortunately, India is headed for a lower crop of millets in 2023.

India produces about 17 million tonnes of millets, mostly bajra, jowar and ragi. Their share of production is shown in Chart 1.

Globally, India has a share of about 20 per cent of total millet production. Among the States, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka are the main producers. State-wise share of production can be seen in Chart 2.

Given the regional considerations, preference for millets vary according to the producing region, the cuisine and the climate. The Karnataka millet programme and the Odisha millet mission are both focussed on ragi. The nuances of millet consumption are important.

The numbers

India produces about 130 million tonnes (mt) of rice, 110 mt of wheat, 35 mt of maize and 16-17 mt of millets, of which, 10 mt is bajra, 5 mt is jowar, and 2 mt is ragi.

Therefore, millets constitute only 5-6 per cent of the total cereals production. Take a look at the public distribution system: the total allocation of foodgrains for PDS and other schemes is 65-70 million tonnes (rice and wheat). The procurement of millets is insignificant compared to the demand for PDS, ICDS and mid-day meal schemes. If millets have to make an impact, their production needs to be raised.

What should the strategy be?

Production: The classic response to a production problem is the ‘Green Revolution’ approach: better seeds, higher irrigation, more fertilizers and aggressive procurement. This approach could prove counter-productive from an ecological perspective. A better alternative would be to make millets the pivot for rainfed agricultural development. Most rainfed areas practice natural farming, and this would be ideal for expanding the area under millets.

Data from NRAA (National Rainfed Area Authority) show that in 16 districts paddy yields are less than one tonne per hectare (the national average is 2.8 t/ha), and in 44 districts they are below 2 t/h.

Farmers in these regions have not shifted to millets for want of adequate support. These areas (about 5 million hectares) are a good starting point for a sustained production programme for millets. While designing a large programme, the lessons learnt from Odisha — that some of the native varieties perform better than hybrids in some regions — are not to be forgotten.

Markets: Thanks to the efforts in 2023, millets have become a buzzword in markets. But that alone is not sufficient. More efforts are required in terms of aggregation, processing and marketing. Procurement at Minimum Support Price and distribution through PDS, mid-day meal scheme and ICDS are a good starting point. However, better value capture by farmers in the open market must be the focus. If this is not done, the old story of millets being relegated to ‘poor woman’s cereal’ will be repeated.

Given the problems associated with the shelf life of millets, a localised, decentralised procurement and distribution model is best suited to this programme. This should be three-tier approach: all physical handling at district (or block) level, accounting and control at State level and financial support (food subsidy) at Central level. This may sound difficult at this stage, but is implementable with sensible decentralised planning.

Why a decade?

The focus must be to make millets the pivot of rainfed farming efforts. While it has been agreed that millets are nutritionally superior and ecologically better, economics of production has not worked in favour of farmers. The integration of production and marketing has happened only in Karnataka and Odisha. There is a lot to learn from these two States.

The best way to take the ‘nutri-cereal revolution’ forward is to provide sufficient innovative space to the States to organise production in water-stressed areas and give them additional support for the introduction of millets (from seed to processing and marketing), allow them to procure locally and use it for PDS, ICDS or mid-day meal and incentivise them for these efforts.

This requires a well-designed, decentralised approach as opposed to the Green Revolution model. If we are serious about millets, special focus on rainfed agriculture and a longer mission mode approach are sine qua non. Given the challenges in rainfed areas, a decade is the right time frame for a serious effort.

The writer is former Food, Agriculture Secretary, and former chairman of NDDB