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India Needs To Strengthen Its Millet Farming Policies

Several issues need to be addressed to incentivise the enhanced demand and resultant higher production of millets in the country. The drudgery in the primary processing of millets has led to a decrease in their consumption.

Ayushi Raina
United Nations General Assembly has declared 2023 as the "International Year of Millets."
United Nations General Assembly has declared 2023 as the "International Year of Millets."

The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2023 as the "International Year of Millets." India possesses the world's greatest range of millets and millet products. As a result, the announcement in the Union Budget 2022-23 of providing assistance for post-harvest value addition, increasing domestic consumption, and national and worldwide branding of millets is a step in the right direction. 

Millets comprises of three major crops (sorghum, pearl, and finger) and six minor crops (barnyard, proso, foxtail, kodo, brown top and little). In terms of proteins, minerals, and vitamins, they are three to five times more nutritious than wheat and rice. They require extremely little water for cultivation, just around 25% of the rainfall regime required by crops like sugarcane and banana. 

Most importantly, they can be cultivated on large expanses of dry terrain utilizing farmyard manures, minimizing the need for synthetic fertilizers. 

As a result, millet cultivation plays an important role in addressing the concerns of climate change, environmental degradation and malnutrition. 

Among the states, the maximum areas under millets are in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana (pearl or bajra) and Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Karnataka (sorghum or jowar). Ragi (finger) forms a major part of the food basket in certain parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Uttarakhand. Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Uttarakhand have the most minor millet area. 

The total cropped area in the country is about 14 million hectares, with an annual production of about 16 million tonnes. India accounts for 80% of Asia's output and 20% of global production, which is led by Africa and the Americas. In 2020, our millet exports will reach $26 million. 

Abhilaksh Likhi, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare says that over the years, the production of millets has given way to other competing crops such as soya bean, maize, cotton, sugarcane, and sunflower. As a result, there is a need for millets to be promoted through new high-yielding varieties and a package of practices such as farm gate processing, price support, and value addition. 

Experts have identified many difficulties that must be solved in order to incentivize growing demands and as a result, increased production of millets in the country. They observe that the drudgery involved in the basic processing of millets has resulted in a major decline in the country's consumption. As a result, it is vital to develop and manufacture machinery to improve millet dehulling without compromising nutritional content (the outer seed coat is inedible). 

Second, there is an urgent need to connect small and marginal millet farmers to online marketing platforms, such as the Electronic Agricultural National Market (e-NAM), in order to source quality millets and market them consistently by entrepreneurs. The formation of farmer producer organizations (FPOs) can also increase millet producers' negotiating power in both domestic and international markets. 

Through the revamped National Food Security Mission Operational Guidelines (NFSM), the Government of India has focused on 212 millet districts in 14 states to provide incentives to farmers for quality seed production/distribution, field-level demonstrations, trainings, primary processing clusters, and research support. The launch of 67 value-added technologies at the ‘centers of excellence’ has been supplemented with the release of 77 high-yielding and 10 bio-fortified varieties. 

The $14 billion Agricultural Infrastructure Fund (AIF) has pushed investments throughout states to promote millet entrepreneurs, primary processing machinery for dehulling millets, and millet farmer collectives. The 'One District One Product' (ODOP) initiative, which identifies agro-climatically suited crops with niche demand, has identified 27 millet districts to focus on. In addition, the $924 million promotion of 10,000 FPOs initiative intends to increase millet farmers' effective market involvement as member owners in these entities. 

The Dharmapuri District Minor Millets Farmer Producer Company (Tamil Nadu) is an example of one of the 100 FPOs that provides technical support to 1,000 farmer members in addition to subsidized seeds and machinery. It is also involved in the purchase of farm produce at acceptable costs from farmers. More importantly, it is involved in the value addition of millets, such as cookies, flour, sprouted flour, rice etc. in the brand name of DMillets’. 

The Dongria Kondhs, on the other hand, are a traditional tribe who live in the isolated parts of the Niyamgiri hill range in southern Odisha. Their traditional cuisine consists of several millets. An age-old seed collection system in the region, which heavily engages the local population, is said to have saved the hardy Kodo millet (a variety high in fiber and energy content) after an almost 40-year absence! 

In this context, the Odisha Government's five-year 'Millet Mission' is supplementing the input and marketing requirements of indigenous small and marginal farmers across the state, such as the Dongria Kondhs, to cultivate millets. Furthermore, non-profit organizations established in Odisha, such as Living Farms, are educating them on topics such as malnutrition and climate change. As a result, there is an urgent need to widely promote nutritious and climate-resilient millets. State governments in Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Telangana have all undertaken similar initiatives. 

Millets are used in a variety of ways in India's rural environment, from indigenous food systems of tribal communities such as the Dongria Kondhs in Odisha to market forays like Dharmapuri millet FPOs. 

To win a healthy millet diet to both rural and urban consumers, we must work with a wide range of stakeholders across the country, including doctors, chefs, and nutritionists. We must also benefit from the last-mile experiences of about 200 millet start-ups developed in recent years by young agri-entrepreneurs. Women millet farmers in rain-fed regions must be empowered via capacity-building and skill development as well. 

Our effort, therefore, has to be to strengthen millet farming policies and institutional interventions that are market-oriented yet inclusive. 

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