India File

From Green Revolution to Millet Revolution

Vishwanath Kulkarni | Updated on March 26, 2018

Guddappa Malagi, a small farmer at Sangur village in Karnataka’s Haveri district, displaying ready-to-harvest browntop millet VISHWANATH KULKARNI

Various millet varieties displayed at an international millet fair in Bengaluru KMURALI KUMAR   -  K_MURALI_KUMAR

Yesterday’s coarse grains are today’s nutri-cereals. If consumers see millets as a solution to lifestyle disorders, producers have realised that it requires less inputs and is an economically viable option if marketing avenues are created. Marking a major policy shift, the Centre and many States have decided to promote millets. Vishwanath Kulkarni reports

“Kodo kutki hatao soyabean lagao” was a popular slogan in the erstwhile unified rural Madhya Pradesh till early 2000s, exhorting millet farmers to go in for oilseeds crop, recalls veteran farm scientist A Seetharam. He spent almost four decades at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) working on millets such as ragi and kutki.

But with the Centre and various State governments adopting a mission-mode approach to promote the once-forgotten cereals, Seetharam sees farm policy coming full circle. Till recently, these grains were called coarse cereals. Now, they have been renamed as nutri-cereals, which are naturally rich in nutrients such as iron, zinc and calcium, among others.

Last week, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh said the Centre was promoting millets on a ‘mission mode’ to achieve nutritional security. This year (2018) has been declared the Year of Millets. The Millet Mission, under the National Food Security Mission, is expected to be rolled out in April, for the next few years. While States such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu have already taken steps to promote millets, Odisha announced a ₹100-crore mission last week.

Return to millets

These nutrient-rich grains are making a quick comeback in the Indian agrarian landscape after decades of institutional neglect. Development agencies and farmers ignored these cereals in favour of rice, wheat and other crops such as oilseeds and pulses. Millets can grow in poor soil conditions with less water, fertiliser and pesticides. They can withstand higher temperatures, making them the perfect choice as ‘climate-smart’ cereals.

“As against the requirement of 5,000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice, millets need hardly 250-300 litres,” says Prabhakar of the All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Small Millets. As urban consumers cope with a range of lifestyle-related disorders, these grains are gradually gaining in popularity.

Small millets such as kodo and kutki, among others, have a cultivation history of 3,000-5,000 years and were major food crops once upon a time. They could be the potential new tools for the government to fight socio-economic issues such as malnutrition and rural poverty while addressing sustainability concerns.

“Millets are grown in about 21 States. There is a major impetus in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. We are trying to push millets in Manipur, Meghalaya and Nagaland, because it is a major staple diet for the tribes in that region,” says Vilas Tonapi, Director, Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad.

In 2016-17, the area under millets stood at 14.72 million hectares, down from 37 million ha in 1965-66, prior to the pre-Green Revolution era. This decline was largely due to change in dietary habits (induced by a cultural bias against millets post-Green Revolution), low-yield of millets, and conversion of irrigated area towards rice and wheat.

Though farmers have been cultivating major millets such as jowar, bajra and ragi, production has been volatile largely due to concerns over low productivity and profitability. Production of millets stood at 16.14 million tonnes in 2016-17, of which, minor millets such as foxtail and kodo millets was 4.5 lakh tonnes.

Karnataka’s initiative

Karnataka Agriculture Minister Krishna Byre Gowda’s efforts to promote millets in the drought-prone State by establishing a linkage between growers, organised in clusters, and consumers are beginning to make an impact.

In central Karnataka’s Haveri district, small farmers like Guddappa Malagi at Sangur village have switched over to growing minor millets, from crops such as chilli and cotton, over the past few years. “While average yield ranges between 8-12 quintals per acre, I have grown about 8 quintals of brown top millet in three-fourth of an acre during the rainy season,” says Malagi, adding that costs are negligible.

“Seeds are saved from the earlier crop, while there is no requirement of fertiliser or pesticides. Even if there’s any pest outbreak, I treat with a mixture of neem oil and soap powder,” says Malagi. “While I was forced to raise loans earlier when growing chilli to meet the expenditure of pesticides, fertilisers and chemicals, now there are no additional costs. As a result, I have been able to save money and have not raised any loans from banks or society,” says Malagi, adding that the two cows and 25 desi hens supplement his income.

Malagi sells his produce to Shree Kumareshwara Savayava Samithi, the local organic producers’ group, through which he fetches a 25 per cent higher realisation than the APMC mandis.

“We used to approach customers in Bengaluru earlier, but now we are getting enquiries from other places,” says Chandrakant Sangur, a large farmer at Sangur and president of the Samiti.

“Earlier people used to laugh at millet growers. But now, with government support and rising awareness, many farmers are coming forward to grow millets,” says Sangur, adding that farmers need more support through improved machinery such as harvesters and processors of millets, which can bring down the cost of production further and encourage local value-addition. “Processing is still a big challenge. We have to take the millets some 40 km away to Shiggaon to process them,” says Sangur. The Karnataka government has extended financial support of ₹1 lakh to encourage primary processing at the farm gate itself and we are setting up machines like de-stoners and for packaging, he adds.

“There’s a need for developing a decentralised model of processing capabilities so that the growers stand to benefit at a community level and in the growing regions,” says Dinesh of Earth 360, an organisation working with millet growers in Andhra Pradesh. Dinesh sees a potential to replicate the Amul model in millets.

The Centre’s Millet Mission will focus on developing farm gate processing and empowering farmers through collectives, while focusing on value-addition and aggregation of the produce. “To ensure that farmers have access to better quality seeds, the mission proposes to create seed hubs across the country and focus on crop improvement,” says Tonapi.

In Telangana, the Deccan Development Society, which is working with about 5,000 small and marginal women farmers in Zaheerabad, has witnessed a revival of traditional seed banks. “Each one of them own at least a tiny piece of land. None of them grows less than 10 crops, mostly millets, on every single acre of their farm. Some of them even grow 25 crop varieties per acre,” says PV Satheesh, Director, DDS.

Village-level ‘sanghams’ maintain seed banks as they help women members plan their crops for the year.

Marketing challenges

A collective, or cluster marketing approach, is seen helping growers, while individual farmers are facing issues in selling their produce. “The prices are very low in the APMC mandis. People are asking for ₹1,500-1,800 per quintal for the foxtail millet that I have grown for the first time, while I should get at least ₹3,500-4,000 per quintal,” says Ram Reddy, a farmer at Baippanahalli near Kolar. So is the case of Muni Reddy, another farmer in the same village, who has grown 25 bags of foxtail millet. “We are waiting for a better price,” says Reddy.

Karnataka has extended a support of ₹2,500 per acre for farmers to bring in more area under minor millets. “Consumers want steady supplies throughout the year and it is here only a SHG/farmer groups can help,” says Sangur.The government should also bring minor millets under the ambit of crop insurance, Sangur adds.

Sangur also said that millets should go beyond being fashionable for the urban elite, or for those dealing with lifestyle ailments. He advocates that the government should make a concerted efforts to push these grains through the PDS. At least a part of the rice/wheat should be replaced with minor millets.

“There is a need to promote the production of more millets by providing a price support to farmers as there’s not only a social dimension, but also nutritional and environmental aspect associated with these cereals. Promoting millets could help governments save expenditure on health and nutrition,” says T N Prakash Kammaradi, Chairman, Karnataka Agriculture Prices Commission. While jowar, ragi and bajra, among others, are already under the ambit of the minimum support price (MSP), Prakash sees a scope for including more grains such as foxtail millet.

From PDS to supermarkets

Various States have been distributing millets such as bajra, jowar and ragi through the public distribution system (PDS), along with other cereals such as rice and wheat. Efforts are now being done to include the nutrient-rich smaller millets in the mid-day meal schemes in government and government-aided schools in Karnataka and Telangana.

Millet awareness is catching up fast in the urban centres such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi among others. Thirty eight-year-old Gayatri Krishnamurthy, from Kolkata, who is passionate about staying fit and healthy, believes millets are a better option than rice and wheat.

“Millets are gluten-free and have a low glycemic index. Their micro-nutrients composition is also better as compared to rice or wheat,” says Krishnamurthy, who has a background in nutrition and dietary sciences.

Millets are gaining ground in wheat-dominated North India, according to Pankaj Agarwal, founder and MD of Treta Agro Private Limited, which sells organic products under the brand name Just Organik. “Our sales of millet-based products have risen 4-5 times in one-and-a-half years. Among millets, ragi (finger millet) is most popular, followed by bajra (pearl millet) and jowar (sorghum). Also becoming popular among health-conscious, educated city dwellers in North India are foxtail millet and barnyard millet," he said.

The rise in consumption of iron and calcium-rich ragi in Gujarat has led to the increase in the State’s area under finger millet by a third to around 20,000 hectares over the past eight years. Eastern Gujarat, which predominantly houses tribal population, has been the heartland for ragi, but consumption has been growing in other parts of state.

Innovation in products made out of millets right from baby foods, breakfast cereals to bakery products, desserts, ice cream and even liquor, is fuelling consumption. Millet-based brews, which were common in the North-East, have now found their way into urban centres, where breweries are trying various grains such as ragi to kraft beers.

Corporates and start-ups

Companies, on their part, are trying to ride this emerging trend. Large players of packaged staples and processed food manufacturers, such as ITC and Britannia, among others, and a host of start-ups, have already introduced millets in their product-mix.

Kolkata-based Ganesh Grains, a maker of flour products, is looking to introduce ‘gluten-free’ atta soon. “There is a rising demand for flour made out of millets; we are very bullish on this,” said Manish Mimani, Managing Director, Ganesh Grains.

IIMR’s Tonapi says creating awareness will trigger the demand at least to the tune of 30-40 per cent for millets. “ All millets are basically gluten-free nature and there is huge export demand for non-glutenous products. We foresee that export demand will increase,” he adds.

The renewed focus on millets is seen fuelling a start-up revolution and creating new jobs. Many of the entrepreneurs are mainly into retailing various millet-based products, while cafes serving millet-based foods are becoming popular in cities. “The awareness is definitely driving consumption,” says Arun Kaulige of Kaulige Foods, a techie-turned-restaurateur and a retailer in Bengaluru.

IIMR, which has developed an exclusive brand for millets – Eatrite – has now started an incubator at its Hyderabad campus to promote start-ups working on ‘convenient’ millet foods. “We are planning to take 10-11 start-ups on board in the first year. We will provide them mentorship and access to the processing technologies and other infrastructure to work on their product ideas,” B Dayakar Rao, a senior IIMR scientist and Chief Executive Officer of NIELAN (Nurturing Incubation Entrepreneurship with Leverage of Agri-Innovation in Nutri-Cereals). Eatrite brand of millet products, worth ₹50 lakh, are sold in cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi. Surely, the millet bandwagon is rolling along.

Inputs from KV Kurmanath, Shobha Roy,

TV Jayan and Rutam Vora

Published on March 26, 2018

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