The International Year of Millets is an opportunity to improve indigenous kids’ nutrition

About 4.7 million tribal children in the country suffer from chronic nutrition deprivation

By B Salome Yesudas
Published: Wednesday 21 June 2023
Indigenous children have higher levels of undernutrition compared to children of socially economically advanced sections. Photo for representation: iStock

The nutrition status of indigenous children paints a grim picture in India. Several studies in various states of the country present similar figures of malnourished indigenous children. The promotion of millets in 2023 can help bridge this nutrition gap if we address the specific issues of the communities.

About 4.7 million tribal children in the country suffer from chronic nutrition deprivation, affecting their survival, growth, learning, performance in school and productivity as adults, according to the humanitarian aid organisation United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Around 80 per cent of the 5 million chronically undernourished indigenous children live in just eight states: Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Odisha, UNICEF further found. 

Also read: International year of millets: Centre to work on decentralised processing & marketing

The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (2016-18) had revealed more disturbing numbers. About 40 per cent of indigenous children in India under five years of age are stunted — 16 per cent severely so.

Mild and moderate stunting is similar in indigenous and non-indigenous children. But severe stunting is higher (16 per cent vs 9 per cent) in indigenous compared to non-indigenous children, the survey further showed.    

Indigenous children have higher levels of undernutrition, compared with children of socially economically advanced sections.

Similarly, income security of indigenous people has been adversely affected by losses and access to productive resources (rights to forest or agricultural lands coupled with poor compensation). Debts are one of the main coping strategies, resulting in a hand-to-mouth existence for those affected.

Nearly three out of four children in a community in southern Indias Nilgiris were found undernourished, according to another study. Poverty alleviation programmes are required to combat undernutrition among backward communities. 

Another study looked at the nutrition status of indigenous people in Bastar district villages in Chhattisgarh. Out of 140 children (55 boys and 85 girls) that participated in the study, around 40.7 per cent of children were found to be stunted, 29.3 per cent were wasting and around 44.3 per cent were underweight.

The findings are in line with results from the central governments National Family Health Survey-4.

Genuine and appropriate assessment of the children using a valid tool can help eliminate this emerging problem of malnutrition among our future generations.

Also read: Beyond the hoopla: Millets must be promoted. But health and economic concerns need priority

In another study in Birbhum district, West Bengal, 31 per cent of under-five children were underweight, 16.6 per cent were severely underweight, 31.5 per cent stunted, 17.2 per cent were severely stunted, 21.7 were wasted and 7.7 per cent severely wasted.

Nearly one-third of the study participants were suffering from anaemia and most of them (91.5 per cent) had mild anaemia. None of the villages had acceptable nutritional status according to lot quality assurance sampling as far as the weight for age and height for age was concerned

Indigenous diet

Indigenous people’s diets, even today, consist of millets, vegetables, greens and mushrooms. They also consume tubers and a host of non-vegetarian foods from forests.

They mostly grow local varieties of millets like pearl millet, sorghum, little millet, finger millet, foxtail millet and kode millet. They preserve the seed and grain using indigenous methods and also share among themselves. Their farming is mostly mixed, where they grow millets, pulses and oil seeds together.

If we carefully look at their traditional food basket, we can see energy-giving foods (millets and tubers), body-building foods (pulses and local meat/fish, etc) protective foods (greens, flowers and seasonal fruits).

Indigenous people also cultivate more than these eight types of millets, according to other studies. Within each millet, many landraces are available. 

What help do they need?

In this International Year of Millet, support in the following ways can help the indigenous community overcome malnutrition through dietary-based options:

    • Cluster-level primary processing machine to de-husk and dehull millet, which can be operated either manually or by diesel because electricity is a constant problem
    • Big water-proof sheets to protect harvested grain from sudden rainfall
    • Integrated Child Development Services and all public distribution systems should include millets either in ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat forms
    • Small bakery units can be established to make millet more appealing to children
    • Millet food festivals and millet recipe competitions can be held at village and cluster levels
    • Simple recipes with a focus on the under-five age group can be produced and spread through social media in local dialects. Distribution through WhatsApp groups can do wonders and bring in positive results 

Also read: Boost indigenous millet recipes over packaged products

Kodo millet poisoning

Kodo poisoning is a huge issue for communities that consume millet and the field should be an immediate research area for food toxicologists. Breeds should also be looked into to evolve toxin resistance.

In the meantime, educational materials to prevent kodo poisoning at farm levels and what needs to be done if a person shows Poisoning symptoms 

Millets survived because of indigenous communities. They have gathered wisdom about millets, right from seed selection, collection, storage, harvesting, hand processing, cooking and more.

It is high time we brought indigenous communities into the main picture to celebrate the year of millets. By providing simple machinery, tools and a little enabling climate to march forward can help the community achieve their own well-being goals. 

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