Why the rich want the poor man’s food

Why the rich want the poor man’s food

Growing millets alone can save Indian agriculture. Millets demand very low amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides

Arun SinhaUpdated: Sunday, February 19, 2023, 11:27 PM IST
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Representative Image | File

Suddenly, rich Indians are raving about coarse cereals. They are not only singing rhapsodies on major coarse cereals such as bajra, jowar and ragi which used to be common on food plates in the past in some states, but also on minor coarse cereals such as kodo, kutki and jhangora which used to be the staple diet of tribal communities living far away from the ‘civilised’ communities on whose dining tables rice and wheat were king and queen.

Two months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a lunch of dishes made from coarse cereals with Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and other dignitaries. Several Union ministers hosted their own coarse cereal lunches. Celebrity chefs are writing about the fusion recipes they have created with coarse cereals. Several of them are already offering their novelties at the five star hotels where they work. Eateries have been set up in some places to offer ragi dosa, bajra pasta, jowar pizza and kodo biryani. Global and national businesses have announced plans to bring ‘ready-to-eat’ coarse cereal packages to the market.

How come ‘coarse’ cereals — which were, as the name suggests, meant for coarse cultures, coarse communities and coarse people — shot suddenly into fashion? There was a clear class division in food in India until now: the rich ate ‘fine’ cereals — rice and wheat — and the poor ate ‘coarse’ cereals — bajra, ragi and jowar. So much so that even the poor Indians — in order to be counted among the ‘civilised’ — gave up eating ‘coarse’ cereals and started eating ‘fine’ cereals.

Of course, a large part of the blame for compelling the poor to throw ‘coarse’ cereals out of their diet and admit ‘fine’ cereals into it goes to the Indian State. Desperate in the 1960s to find a way to feed the population, the State bet on the cultivation of the high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat. And it worked. The green revolution provided the country food security. The State supplied cheap rice and wheat through the public distribution system. And the poor left ‘coarse’ cereals and got addicted to rice and wheat.

What to speak of the poor, even the lower middle classes in towns and villages who used to eat ‘coarse’ cereals switched over to rice and wheat as they were easily available in the market. As a consequence, the area across the nation under ‘coarse’ cereals dropped from 37 million hectares in the mid-1960s to 14 million hectares in the mid-2010s. According to ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics), India's per capita consumption of millets fell from 32.9 kg to 4.2 kg per year between 1962 and 2010.

Why does the nation want to shift back from ‘fine’ cereals to ‘coarse’ cereals now? Why are the rich Indians so desperate to eat the ‘poor man’s food’?

Because study after study has shown that ‘coarse’ cereals are the best for health. They are high in protein, vitamins and micronutrients, such as iron, gluten-free and low in glycemic index. Unlike ‘fine’ cereals, they control blood sugar and blood pressure, keep cholesterol low, protect the heart and improve digestive health.

With the rich rediscovering their qualities, they are no longer calling the ‘coarse’ cereals ‘coarse’. They call it ‘millets’. They have given them even more glorified names. Some call them ‘nutri cereals’. Food businesses and celebrity chefs call them ‘superfoods’. Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her 2023-24 budget speech called them ‘Shree Anna’ or ‘mother of foodgrains’.

But are we doing anything beyond glorification? What does Sitharaman’s budget have for ‘Shree Anna’? When ‘Shree Anna’ thumbs through the pages of allocations on agriculture in her budget, she does not find much money there for her elevation to the food throne. All she got was praise but no promotion.

If millets have to be promoted among both the rich and poor Indians who have got addicted to rice and wheat to save them from health disorders, the State cannot stop at just deifying and building a temple to Shree Anna. If she is a deity, she must be in every home and every heart.

And only when she is in every home and every heart that even India can hope to be a healthy, sound and robust nation. Because growing millets alone can save Indian agriculture. Millets demand very low amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides. To grow one kg of rice, you need 4000 litres of water. To grow one kg of millets, you just need 300 litres, less than 10% of what you need for rice. Growing only rice and wheat has meant depletion of groundwater, degeneration of soil with overdose of chemicals and ulcers to ecology. Growing less rice-wheat and more millets could help groundwater, the soil and the ecology recover their losses.

But for that, the State has to go beyond the tamasha and take the five following measures with full sincerity:

One, it has to fix minimum support prices for millets and help their purchase. Odisha was the first to take measures to help growers earn good income from millets. Karnataka and Chhattisgarh are also doing so. The central government should take similar measures and reduce the rice-wheat quota to include millets in the public distribution system.

Two, the central government should allocate adequate funds for research and development of high-yielding millet varieties and taking them to the growers. Seeds traditionally used by millet growers have given low yield, well enough for their subsistence. But if they have to produce for the market, their productivity has to be higher.

Three, processing millets is very arduous. The State has to develop low-cost and easy-to-use processing technologies and make them available at the farm gate.

Four, consumers do not prefer to cook millet recipes as it demands more time and effort. Also, their taste is not as good as rice or wheat products. Besides, they are heavier on the stomach. The State needs to take measures to overcome such consumer resistance.

Five, food regulation has been lax and corrupt. With rising demand for millets, the market will be flooded with millet products and ready-to-cook packages. The State must ensure people do not eat junk food believing it to be nutritious.


Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and the author of Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor

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