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Shree Anna, The Superfood: India's Millet Mission For Healthier, Sustainable Future

The government has taken steps to increase awareness and popularise the use of millets, including holding a global conference on the topic

Shree Anna, anna banna (Millets do become big brother). This is somewhat the clarion call given by the Government to popularise millets and bring these to the centre of the plate. Millets have been christened as Shree Anna signifying it is the best among foodgrains, giving it due recognition and the honour it deserves. And, why not?  After all it was a prime cereal of Indians prior to the Green Revolution accounting for over a quarter of the cereal intake. That it is abundantly nutritious and hardy to grow adds to its standing. 

What is heartening is that millets require little water to grow, almost a tenth of what paddy takes. These do not require expensive inputs as well, with the expenditure on seeds, fertilisers, crop protection chemicals, etc being a third that of paddy. With the burgeoning numbers in the population affected by health issues such as anemia, diabetes, high cholesterol and protein deficiency, millets are truly superfoods which support in controlling these lifestyle diseases in a natural way.

The government announced 2018 as the National Year of Millets taking steps to increase awareness and popularise use of millets. Going further, India successfully piloted millets to a global platform and United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The prime objective is to promote the production and usage of millets so as to benefit farmers, consumers as well as the environment and propel India to be the world centre for millets.

To provide impetus to this movement, the government held a 2-day global conference on Shree Anna last week wherein representatives from over a hundred countries participated. Inaugurating the Conference the Prime Minister said that India's Millet Mission will prove to be a boon for 2.5 crore millet producing farmers of the country.

What ails millets though? The acreage under millets has drastically reduced over the past few decades. Even in this last decade, the area under coarse cereals at 24 million hectares has dipped by 15 per cent. In the just completed Rabi season while the overall farm acreage rose by 14 per cent, the area under millets decreased by 5 per cent. Post the Green Revolution there has been greater emphasis on increasing the production of rice and wheat. Furthermore, these have been aided by government procurement at minimum support prices. The overall economics have therefore tilted towards the finer grains.

Paddy for example, yields revenue of Rs 50,000 per acre whereas jowar or ragi would give an average of Rs 30,000. In terms of net margin, paddy therefore delivers 50 per cent more than millets. Demand for such cereals is also buoyed by the fact that government’s public distribution system is mostly constituted by rice and wheat whereas coarse cereals do not receive such consideration.  So the contribution of millets to the food basket is now down to a meagre 6 per cent.

The government has now put into motion some rightful steps to provide momentum in growing the millets demand.  In the Union Budget 2023-24 millets got special mention with the Finance Minister saying “India is at the forefront of popularising Millets, whose consumption furthers nutrition, food security and welfare of farmers.  We are the largest producer and second largest exporter of Shree Anna in the world.  Now to make India a global hub for Shree Anna, the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR), Hyderabad will be supported as the Centre of Excellence for sharing best practices, research and technologies at the international level.”

In the recent global conference, IIMR was named as the global centre of excellence.  The focus is on value addition and branding of millet products. The government has approved a Production Linked Incentive Scheme for Food Processing Industry for Millet-based products for implementation during 2022-23 to 2026-27 with an outlay of Rs 800 crore.

These are steps in the right direction. To really galvanise the whole system and make meaningful progress towards the objectives, this needs a multi-pronged endeavour.  The impact can only be made if there are improvements at every stage in the value chain, from the farm to the plate.  There can be a five pronged approach to achieve this.  

First, yields of millets have recorded notable increase with the development and adoption of high yielding varieties/hybrid seeds and improved package of practices. These need to be propagated well so that the advanced technologies are adopted across the millets acreage. Second, the role of Farmer Producer Companies (FPC) in adopting technologies and moving up the value chain will be immense. Nurturing FPCs and start-ups will not only help small holder farmers to adopt better farming methods but also propel them forward in the millets value chain.

Third, concerted efforts and appropriate government support should be given to increase the acreage under millets cultivation. In particular, millets can be grown in areas which are water starved or having poor water levels. Production thrust has to be extended to processing as well to have value added and innovative millet products. Next, a large scale communication programme should be unleashed to increase awareness and promoting the goodness of Shree Anna. 

Finally, it will be imperative to have robust mechanisms to connect to domestic as well as international markets. The role of branding and able marketing agencies/entities will be crucial to grow and meet the market demands. Millets exports out of India has been rising and during 2021-22, the export has attained an all-time high of Rs 480 crore. This leaves the exciting space to spring up as the global leader.

The State can support millets by increasing its presence in the public distribution system.  And, the silver bullet to tilt the scales will be for the Government to suitably back and support the farmers to make millets economically the sensible path to take. Shree Anna is ideally suited to serve the people and planet and it does hold the potential to deliver due profits too! And, with heightened consumer awareness, sustainability imperatives and the drive to double farmer income, there is no better time to do it than now.  




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