Millets in PDS a game changer for combating malnutrition, climate change

Subsidised cereals distributed under PDS have increased the consumption of excessive starch instead of pulses, legumes, vegetables, nuts and milk, which provide wholesome nutrition

By Abhijit Mohanty, Bindu Mohanty
Published: Friday 27 January 2023
Regular consumption of millet can significantly improve key nutrition parameters among children and women. Vikas Choudhary/CSE
Regular consumption of millet can significantly improve key nutrition parameters among children and women. Vikas Choudhary/CSE Regular consumption of millet can significantly improve key nutrition parameters among children and women. Vikas Choudhary/CSE

India was ranked 107 of 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2022. This is despite the country running the largest food distribution network, which feeds over 800 million people — around 10 per cent of the world’s population. Malnutrition continues to be a significant challenge in India even after 75 years of independence.

The government introduced the Public Distribution System (PDS) to alleviate hunger by providing staple foods like rice and wheat at a nominal cost to economically weaker households.

Also read: Government push to coarse cereals as climate change affects wheat, paddy cultivation

“The rice-wheat centric policies have amplified poor nutritional outcomes,” according to eminent economist Jean Dreze. The cereal-based PDS may have reduced hunger, but the problem of malnutrition persists, he underlined.

India is facing the triple burden of malnutrition, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. The country is home to 224.3 million undernourished people, according to a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2019-2021.

Over 80 per cent adolescents in India suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, noted a report published by United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. Hidden hunger is a deficiency of micronutrients that affects health and learning ability and aggravates the vicious cycle of malnutrition and poverty. 

Sustainable food

Subsidised cereals distributed under PDS have increased the consumption of excessive starch instead of pulses, legumes, vegetables, nuts and milk, which provide wholesome nutrition. It is high time to adopt nutrient-dense diets. PDS has a crucial role in procuring and distributing a wider variety of traditional and nutritious grains. 

Small-scale farmers in the dryland and rainfed areas grew millets as part of an intercropping system, along with pulses, legumes, oilseeds and tubers. Millets like barnyard, ragi (finger millet)kodo, foxtail, little, proso and sorghum are known as nutri-cereals due to their richness in dietary fibre, proteins, calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, amino acids and other micronutrients. 

Regular consumption of millets can significantly improve key nutrition parameters among children and women. Millets can improve haemoglobin levels and reduce iron deficiency. There has been a growing awareness, particularly among urban consumers, that millets are a powerhouse of nutrition, good for diabetes and obesity and reduce the chances of heart and cardiovascular diseases.

Also read: Are millets safe from biopiracy?

Recognising the nutritional value of millets, the Government of India revalorised millets as ‘Nutri-cereals’ in 2018. The government has also created a sub-mission under the National Food Security Mission to encourage millet cultivation and its inclusion in PDS.

Recently, Telangana’s agricultural minister, S Niranjan Reddy, also called for the inclusion of millets in PDS to stimulate demand for this cereal. Telangana is taking steps to include millets in public diets by introducing them to integrated child development services (ICDS). 

Millets are climate-resilient crops that can grow with less water and chemical inputs. Millets-based production system helps reduce the carbon footprint and improve energy use efficiency.

Paddy requires 1,200-1,500 millilitres (ml) of water, whereas millets require just about 600-800 ml water per acre. For farmers depending on rainfed agriculture, millets are a major source of income and nutrition. 

Millets are smart-food, said Joanna Kane-Potaka, deputy director general of the International Rice Research Institute. “They are a blessing for small-scale farmers facing climate change, suffering from poverty poverty and failing to meet adequate nutrition.”

Mainstreaming millets in PDS

Since millets are nutrient-dense cereals with the potential to address India’s food and nutrition security, mainstreaming them under PDS could address the challenge of micronutrient deficiency.

Many states have introduced millets in their food security programmes. Karnataka became the first state to include jowar and ragi in PDS in July 2015 in accordance with recommendations in the National Food Security Act, 2013. 

The Odisha government launched Odisha Millets Mission (OMM) in 2017-2018 to revive millets. OMM has been instrumental in creating an enabling ecosystem for better production, developing a millet value chain, campaigning for behaviour change and increasing household consumption of millets. 

The state government procures ragi from farmers at MSP and transfers payment via online benefit transfer mode. Farmers producer organisations (FPO) have been empanelled as procurement agencies. This has addressed the challenges of poor transportation facilities in remote areas, thus minimising the gap between mandi (wholesale market) and farmers. 

Also read: Millet might: Here is how Odisha can succeed in reviving these cereals lost to the Green Revolution

OMM has introduced ragi in various social safety net programmes such as PDS, Supplementary Nutrition Programme under ICDS, Mid-Day Meal scheme and tribal hostels. Under PDS, for instance, two kilograms of ragi per ration cardholder was supplied as a rice substitute. During 2017-18 to 2022-23, over five lakh quintals of ragi were distributed to 18,038,187 ration cardholders. 

“Promoting millets is about ensuring equity and justice to vulnerable tribal farmers,” according to Odisha’s Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik. Efforts have been taken up to promote and increase procurement of little and foxtail millets under MSP. These initiatives will increase the demand and consumption of millets, which is a key driver for mainstreaming millets. 

Including millets in PDS would be a game changer for combating malnutrition and mitigating climate change,” said professor Srijit Mishra, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai.

Grains required for distribution under PDS should be procured from farmers at MSP. But there is a need for a comprehensive policy to strengthen the existing system.

Challenges & way forward

At the outset, including millet under PDS and ensuring an elevated MSP may seem like an effective strategy to boost millet production and consumption. But there are several flip sides that need urgent policy attention.

In Karnataka, for instance, the cost of production of a quintal of paddy is much lower and the yields are much higher than ragi. And to make ragi compete with other high-value crops, the government needs to increase the MSP for farmers.  

Despite millet being supplied under PDS in Karnataka, beneficiaries source a significant proportion of their rice consumption from markets, revealed a study conducted by MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. Only around 25 per cent of households consume millets distributed under PDS since there is a strong preference for rice. 

Also read: Millets make a comeback in rural areas

Andhra Pradesh undertook a pilot project in 2018, but as procurement was done through the tendering process, the benefits to the farmers were limited.

The state government now plans to re-introduce millets into the PDS but through a more equitable process that would benefit both farmers and consumers.

“Shifting consumer preferences is key,” said Khader Vali, popularly known as India’s ‘Millet Man’. Behavioural change campaigns, enabling policies and investments are needed to bring millet back to people’s diets. A comprehensive design framework is imperative instead of piecemeal approaches.

The comprehensive model of OMM to improve nutrition in tribal districts has been recognised by World Food Programme. Similarly. NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, Government of India, recommended that the OMM operational framework should be adopted by other states.

Decentralised PDS is imperative. Districts should be locally self-sufficient in terms of millet production, procurement, processing and distribution. This will reduce costs of transport and storage, minimise the risk of spoilage during storage and reduce corruption and leakages. 

OMM has developed the standards for millet processing and value-added machinery and set up processing machinery at panchayat and block levels that are operated and managed by women self-help groups and FPOs.

Such decentralised people-centric approaches have created livelihood opportunities. More research and development are needed to develop efficient machinery for millet that can work in energy-constrained rural areas.

The average yield of millets is 1,111 kg per hectare (ha), far less than 2,600 kg for paddy and 3,500 kg for wheat, according to Smart Food, a global initiative led by the ICRISAT.

Promoting agronomic practices, accessibility to quality seed and locally suitable varieties would help in boosting production to balance demand and supply. 

Through such comprehensive and innovative approaches, PDS can be reformed to include millets. And, with the inclusion of millets in public diets, India may well improve its ranking in the Global Hunger Index.

Read more:

Abhijit Mohanty is a Bhubaneswar-based development professional and freelance journalist. He has reported on sustainable food, climate change, conservation, livelihood and inclusive education with a special focus on tribal and marginalised communities in India and Cameroon.  

Bindu Mohanty is the Research Coordinator at Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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