Top chef Manjit Singh Gill (centre) experiments with millet recipes in his kitchen studio in Gurugram (Photo: Raul Irani)
INDIA SITS ON a mere drop, 4 per cent of the world’s water. And that is shared by its 1.4 billion people. Farmers guzzle most of it, 90 per cent of the groundwater. India’s dependence on two staples—paddy and wheat—is responsible for the depletion of the water table by 0.7 metre every year. While rice was sown over 128.5 lakh hectares in 2021-22, wheat claimed 316 lakh hectares. Together, the two crops occupy nearly 40 per cent of the total net cultivable area of the country but consume over 80 per cent of its irrigation water. And many states provide subsidised and, sometimes, free electricity for agriculture. The proof of the pudding lies in the losses incurred by the electricity distribution companies (discoms), which according to some reports, stood at a staggering ₹90,000 crore in 2020-21. Given the looming water crisis and the burden on the ecosystem to cultivate paddy and wheat, health experts, too, have issued caveats time and again to cease consumption. Both rice and wheat fall under the high glycemic index category ranging from 75 to 85, making them potentially diabetic. And that opens up a plethora of lifestyle disorders, including cardiac, hypertension, obesity, cancer and neurological.
But farmers remain hardnosed. It is difficult to convince them of the benefits of diversifying from the wheat-rice combination. The assured inflow of minimum support price (MSP), with procurement guaranteed, has led to continuous expansion of the area under cultivation of the two crops. What is the answer?
The paddy-wheat conundrum has compelled many in the country to think harder, and scout for sustainable alternatives. It includes Prime Minister Narendra Modi who in his Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast on August 28 categorically urged farmers to adopt millets, or nutritious coarse grains, as their preferred choice of crop and benefit from them. “India is the largest producer of millets in the world. Hence the responsibility of making this a success also rests on the shoulders of us Indians,” he said, also referring to the UN declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets. The UN acted on India’s proposal which eventually came to be accepted by over 70 countries.
Only we have the skill to turn crops into food. Now, the government has understood the role of chefs and we contribute regularly in meetings and seminars” Manjit Singh Gill, president, Indian Federation of Culinary Associations
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It is obviously linked to global warming. Millets are heat tolerant small crops that require very little water to grow, 350-400 mm, compared to 1,200 mm of water that rice consumes. That’s a third of the water intake of paddy. Millets are good for the farmer because they can be harvested on dry land, and “52 per cent of this country is dry,” points out B Dayakar Rao, principal scientist at the Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR) in Hyderabad. However, millets are a lot less productive than rice or wheat. The number of millets that can be produced in any given area is just a sixth of rice. So, millets may not completely overhaul rice or wheat as staples but can play a formidable role in ensuring food security. Also, the vagaries of climate do not affect the sturdy foodgrains, which, unlike other crops, are not monsoon-dependent. Rao even calls them “smart food” since millets are not just good for the planet, but come fortified nutritionally with anti-oxidants, dietary fibre, good carbs, and are gluten-free.
A study conducted by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) shows consuming millets lowers cholesterol by around 8 per cent. “Millets enhance your health and improve weight loss, apart from being gluten-free. There are numerous health benefits right from supporting weight loss, keeping blood sugar low, boosting immunity, and improving cardiovascular health,” says dietician and nutritionist Avni Kaul.
Though millets have accounted for a major share of the average Indian’s diet since ancient times, they have taken a backseat since the Green Revolution in the 1960s which focused on mitigating malnourishment through high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice. Millets in India find mention in some of the oldest Yajurveda texts which identify foxtail millets (priyangava), barnyard millet (aanava), and black finger millet (shyamaka). It implies millet consumption in India predates the Bronze Age (4500 BCE).
Agriculture in early modern India was dominated by the wheat-rice duo. It is only in the last few years that millets have entered mainstream conversation. The rice-wheat overdose is unsustainable as it’s a double-edged sword—it breeds lifestyle diseases and rapidly erodes the environment. This is where the value chain takes root. To make somewhat of a staple of the nine varieties of millets in India (there are 11 globally), there has to be an integration of the supply chain from the cultivator to the end-consumer. And since India produces 1,239 kg/hectare of millets (more than the 1,229 kg/hectare global average), it is the No 1 millet-producing nation. A robust supply chain that ensures better prices for the cultivator also ensures better margins for the manufacturer and, ultimately, superior value to the consumer. India is home to three major millets and six minor millets. The major millets are jowar (sorghum), bajra (pearl millet), and ragi (finger millet); the minor ones are kodo, kutki, kangni, sanwa, proso millet, and brown top millet. The three major millets comprise 95 per cent of the overall millet produce in the country.
TO CRACK THE millet maze, several stakeholders have mushroomed across the country over the last few years. Government think tank NITI Aayog has for one tied up with the World Food Programme (WFP) for mainstreaming millets. “It’s not just the production aspect of millets, we are working to enhance the total ecosystem of the crop. We want to create new demand in urban areas for these products since they are still not widely available in ready-to-eat formats, such as ragi instant noodles,” says Neelam Patel, senior advisor, Agriculture, and Allied Sectors, NITI Aayog. Patel is also referring to synergies that come in with WFP’s association with some of the best practices in the millet value chain—from cultivation, processing, marketing, branding, and consumption.
In the ’90s and early-2000s, the production and consumption markets for millets were disconnected,” says B Dayakar Rao, principal scientist, Indian Institute of Millets Research
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B Dayakar Rao of IIMR has been working with millets and he not only pioneered the development of the millet value chain for nearly three decades but is also familiar with the industrial use of the crops. While he has spearheaded the use of potable alcohol using sorghum (jowar), he has developed sweet sorghum bioethanol for blending with petrol, and also created something called “analog rice”, a processed product made with millets to resemble rice but packed with nutrition. He, too, believes in a robust value chain if the commodity were to make an impact. “The only issue was the production and consumption markets [in the 1990s and early-2000s] were disconnected,” he rues, agreeing in the same breath that there is a “sea change” as the crops are now being developed commercially. In 2017, Rao set up “Nutrihub”, a technology business incubator with the help of the Department of Science & Technology. Today, Nutrihub caters to 300 millet startups across the country and handholds them to establish last-mile connectivity with consumers.
Veteran chef Manjit Singh Gill is well-known for his gastronomic innovations and as corporate chef at ITC Hotels, has curated menus for some of the most coveted restaurants in the country, like Bukhara and Dumpukht. The 71-year-old has also pioneered several initiatives to promote traditional Indian food and is the president of the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA). Speaking to Open, Gill admits it took time for the government to realise how much chefs could contribute to agriculture. “Only we have the skill and the understanding to turn crops into food. Now, they [government] have understood the role of chefs and we contribute regularly in meetings and seminars,” he says. Gill dubs the millet taste as bittersweet, with more bitter notes than sweetness. Anything bitter is good for wellness, he claims, citing neem, fenugreek, and bitter gourd for company. Gill’s voice matters since he is also a member of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub which has established a community of over 130 chefs from 38 countries who worked together to create a Chefs’ Manifesto. This is a document written by chefs, for chefs, synthesising the sustainable development goals into eight thematic areas that chefs are keen on tackling. Besides, apart from B Dayakar Rao, he, too, is a member of the task force formed by the agriculture ministry on the nutrition and health benefits of millets.
Like Gill, Raju Bhupati, CEO of Troo Good, the largest millet-based snack brand in the country, is finicky about the taste of his product range. He positions his range of millet-infused bars and candies at ₹5 a pop as “tasty and affordable nutrition”. He admits that the grains have neither a favourable colour nor taste. “You need a great deal of innovation to make it palatable and consumable so that it eventually becomes a stable product,” he says. Bhupati took to proprietary processing of millets to get a better taste for his products. Take, for instance, the humble peanut candy that is heavily consumed throughout the country. By infusing the peanut candy with millets using proprietary processing, the ubiquitous chiki got fortified with 50 per cent more nutritional value. “The fact that we’re selling 15-20 lakh chikis per day shows that the offtake is more than the conventional peanut candy.” Troo Good has sold more than 100 million units in three years since its inception and has clocked an annual revenue of over ₹70 crore, with two rounds of funding already.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast on August 28 categorically urged farmers to adopt millets, or nutritious coarse grains, as their preferred choice of crop and benefit from them. ‘India is the largest producer of millets in the world. Hence the responsibility of making this a success also rests on the shoulders of us Indians,’ he said, also referring to the UN Declaration of 2023 as the International Year of Millets
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KRISHNAA KANTTHAWALA, COFOUNDER of the Pune-based Smart Foods, takes her millet-based enterprise a step further. A former brand manager for lab-grown diamonds in Singapore, the 42-year-old returned to India in 2018 and bootstrapped her venture at home with a meagre ₹85,000. She started by vending 5,000 packs of millet noodles, and today clocks revenues upwards of ₹10-15 lakh a month.
Apart from noodles, Kantthawala, a Gujarati, makes khakra, cookies and pasta—all from millets. But what makes her venture unique is the focus on exports. “We have already done exports to Norway, the Netherlands, and Nepal. Currently, production is on for our first export to the US,” says Kantthawala who plans to have a footprint across seven countries in the next six months. Simultaneously, she’s stitching up a distribution network across five Indian cities, primarily in the “more receptive” southern markets. With a handful of employees and some workers, her Smart Eleven brand of millet foods is already trending online over Amazon and Big Basket. “Today, we are in a position to come out with 22 products that will include Indian breakfast mixes, bread, muesli, millet energy bars, chocolate balls, etc,” she beams.
Again, Lucknow-based Shaloo Tewari is the cofounder of Nutriplate India Café & Store which makes roasted namkeens, muesli, and breakfast cereals from millet flakes. Her products are largely sold online but she gets to experiment in her kitchen café, which she opened two years ago. Here, she makes muesli, poha, and multigrain wraps, all using millets. “We have replaced pasta and noodles with their gluten-free, millet-based variants,” she observes. In a year, Tewari, who manages her venture with her husband and daughter, plans to go offline.
There are boots on the ground, too. Meet Pooja Sharma, president of the Kshitiz self-help group (SHG) in Gurugram. In 2013, she first dabbled in roasted soya nuts as a member of an SHG with 10 other women to supplement her “husband’s meagre income”. Eventually, she brought to the table her childhood recipes like ladoos, matthi, bajra khichdi, and what have you. In 2017, an NGO helped her establish a bakery that went by the “Kshitiz” brand name, and also set up the “ZingnZest” brand of cookies, which she now sells to five-star hotels and big retail. There are about 150 women associated with her venture today, and with a formidable profit margin, she ensures each of them takes home at least ₹7,000-8,000 a month. She has a wide following on social media, too.
Prime Minister Modi’s reference to millets as “superfood” takes into account an entire ecosystem being shaped by farmers, policymakers and entrepreneurs. It also has an eye on women’s empowerment and the country’s health quotient. The prime minister, too, is doing his bit to make the superfood popular: “For the past some time, when any foreign guest comes to India, when heads of state come to India, it is my endeavour to get dishes made from the millets of India.”