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Millets in the Indian Plate

A Policy Perspective

Sanchit Makkar (, Sumedha Minocha ( and Sumathi Swaminathan ( work in the Division of Nutrition, St John’s Research Institute, Bengaluru. Anura V Kurpad ( works in the Department of Physiology, St John’s Medical College, Bengaluru.


Millets can play a role in providing nutrition security as they are rich in various macro and micronutrients, and can help to fight various non-communicable diseases. Hence, a suggestion was made to include them in the basket of goods provided through the public distribution system. The findings of this article suggest that, with the present level of production, millets can be provided in some states of India which have culturally grown as well as consumed them. However, scaling this policy to the national level may not be possible unless rigorous measures are undertaken to improve production as well as consumer acceptability.

The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewer for useful comments during the revision of the article.

The objective of the targeted public distribution system (TPDS), launched in India in 1997, was to provide sufficient grains and nutritional support to beneficiaries, largely comprising the socially and economically deprived sections of the population identified as below poverty line households, to ensure food security. Although sufficiency in the provision of grains has been achieved to a significant extent, improvement in nutrient intake has not. Food security is not only about having access to enough quantity of food, but also safe and good quality food derived from diverse sources (Food and Agriculture Organization 1996). Millet grains are a potential source of healthy and nutritious food and hence were proposed to be included in the basket of grains provided through the public distribution system (PDS) under the National Food Security Act, 2013 (NFSA) (Rajya Sabha 2014). Millets are small seeded grass grown as a coarse cereal, majorly in the semi-arid tropics of Asia and Africa, and are a rich source of calcium, fibre, protein, iron and various other micronutrients.

The decision to provide millets through the PDS is timely, given that India is in the midst of a nutrition and health transition, and consequently, the role of micronutrient deficiencies is increasingly recognised in combating the emerging public health problem of the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular diseases (Meenakshi 2016). To successfully incorporate millets in the basket of goods provided through the PDS, it is important first, to understand the amount of millets that can replace other cereals in the diet of the targeted population to improve nutrient intake and second, to understand if there is sufficient supply of the given amount of grains for smooth procurement.

Consumption Pattern of Millets

The most common varieties of millets consumed in India include pearl (bajra), finger (ragi), and sorghum (jowar), and several varieties of small millets such as kodo, proso, little, foxtail and barnyard. Though millets have traditionally been a part of food systems in many parts of India, their consumption has seen a decline over the years (DHAN Foundation and Wassan 2012). The per capita household consumption of millets was reported as 15.25 grams/day (gm/day) in 2011–12 as compared to 28.17 gm/day in 2004–05 (NSSO 2013).1 However, there are regional variations in the pattern of consumption as presented in Figure 1. For example, some districts in Rajasthan reported a consumption greater than 150 gm, whereas several districts in India reported no consumption at all. This also points towards the importance of the need for state-specific or even district-specific policies for millets. Even if they are provided through the PDS, consumers might not accept them if they have not culturally been a part of their diet. Overall, the highest average per capita consumption of millets was reported for Karnataka at 71.2 gm/day, whereas it was around 124.76 gm/day in 2004–05 (NSSO 2013). Other states with high consumption were Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat, with daily per capita consumption greater than 40 gm.

The reasons for the decline in consumption can be varied, such as changing tastes and preferences, rapid urbanisation, increasing incomes, tedious and high duration requirement for cooking millets, lack of “value-added” millet-based products, lack of awareness about their nutritional properties and negative social connotation of millets as a “poor man’s food” (DHAN Foundation and Wassan 2012; Government of India 2014). Most importantly, with the inclusion of rice and/or wheat in the PDS, the reduction in millet consumption became a rational human choice, especially for individuals and communities living with limited resources (DHAN Foundation and Wassan 2012). There are no policy discussions on the role of millets in providing food and nutrition security. Apart from this, supply-side factors also contribute to the decline in consumption, as discussed further.

Nutritional Benefits and Health Outcomes

Even though considered a culturally inferior commodity as compared to rice and wheat, millets are rich in a variety of micronutrients, particularly calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium and dietary fibre and some important vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin, folic acid, and niacin (Kaur et al 2014; Saleh et al 2013). While their protein levels are comparable to wheat and rice, the balance of essential amino acids is better, and so, they potentially offer more quality protein (Saleh et al 2013). Table 1 presents the nutrient value of ragi, jowar, bajra, rice and wheat (Longvah et al 2017).

However, there is limited research on the actual impact of millets on health outcomes. Of the few studies available, ­millets were found to have a positive role in controlling diabetes. One such clinical study done on an Indian sample found that replacing a rice-based breakfast item with a millet-based breakfast item lowered the postprandial blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetes mellitus patients, hence, serving a protective role in the management of hyperglycaemia (Narayanan et al 2016). Another study based on the supplementation of low glycaemic index, foxtail millet-based biscuits and burfi found a significant decrease in serum glucose, serum lipids (serum cholesterol, triglycerides and very low density lipoprotein) and glycosylated haemoglobin in type 2 diabetes of the sample population (Thathola et al 2011).

These studies indicate that millets potentially have a protective role in the management of diabetes, though further studies need to be conducted in a systematic manner to build a stronger evidence base. These findings are extremely relevant, especially in the present context of the burgeoning problem of diabetes in India. In 2016, an estimated 1.52 lakh deaths were directly caused by diabetes mellitus in India (World Health Organization 2018). According to the National Family Health Survey-4, about 5.8% of women and 8% of men in the age group of 15–49 years have random blood glucose ­levels higher than 140 milligrams per decilitre in India (IIPS 2017). This figure could be even higher because it does not ­include people who are on medications to control their blood sugar levels.

Recommendations for Daily Millet Intake

The Indian Dietary Guidelines give a combined figure for the daily requirement of cereals, hence it is difficult to make any firm recommendation on the per capita requirements specifically for millets (Indian Council of Medical Research 2010). For defining the suggested daily recommendation of millet ­intake, several aspects need to be considered. The first critical aspect to be noted is that a replacement of rice or wheat with millets should occur, rather than adding to the amount that is already consumed. Second, the recommendation should be based on an evaluation of the nutritional composition of millets with respect to the daily requirement of nutrients, and the potential increase in the nutrient intake when replacing rice or wheat with millets.

It is reasonable to assume that an ideal replacement of rice or wheat with millets might be when one meal in a day is a millet-based meal. At a minimum, one could consider the replacement to be at least three–four meals per week, but the benefits of this intake could be doubtful, based on the considerations that follow. The typical intake of cereals in a meal is about 100–150 gm per serving. This is based on the Indian Dietary Guidelines, where the average intake of total cereals is about 400 gm/day, assuming 100 gm is consumed at breakfast, and the remaining at lunch, snacks and/or dinner (Indian Council of Medical Research 2010). Therefore, the per capita requirement of millets should be at 3 kilograms per month (kg/month).

Defining the benefits could be based on the nutrients that 100 gm of millets could provide, as presented in Table 1 (p 50). Further, Table 2 gives the proportion of the daily requirement that is met by 100 gm of millets (Indian Council of Medical Research 2010). It is evident that 100 gm provide about 30% of dietary fibre requirements, about 20%–40% of the iron requirement and could potentially be beneficial in the prevention of chronic diseases and anaemia. With about 20% of the zinc requirement also provided, millets might be useful in promoting growth. Further, ragi particularly provides about 60% of the calcium requirements, probably making it the best source of dietary calcium from a staple grain.

However, bioavailability also needs to be considered. One study indicated that zinc bioavailability is lower in pearl millet-based meals, compared with rice-based meals (Agte et al 1995). However, bioavailability can be improved by milling, roasting, soaking and malting processes which reduce phytic acid and tannin content, thus improving bioavailability, particularly of iron (Afify et al 2011; National Academy of Agricultural Sciences 2013). Considering the above, it seems reasonable to suggest that the provision of these amounts of nutrients are optimal from a single meal, and it is worth recommending that at the minimum, the provision of millets through the PDS should aim to replace at least one meal in the daily intake of cereals.

Further, it is also worthwhile to examine the changes in nutrient intake if the above proposed quantity of millets were ­replaced in a rice or wheat-based diet. Figures 2a and 2b present the replacement of rice and wheat respectively with ragi in increasing proportions for an Indian Council of Medical Research recommended low-cost meal (Indian Council of Medical Research 2010). Starting with 460 gm of rice and wheat (composition 1), the quantity is replaced by 50 gm of ragi in each composition from the previous composition. As is evident from Figure 2a, with increasing ragi intake, there is a marginal change in energy but a significant increase in calcium, iron and fibre. For example, with a 100 gm replacement (composition 3) of ragi with rice, calcium increases by around 3.4 times as compared to the base case. Also, iron and fibre increase by almost 1.5 times. The nutrient benefits are expected to increase further if the replacement is even higher (composition 4). ­Similarly, additional nutrient benefits are expected when rice is replaced with jowar and bajra, though not as much in terms of calcium. However, when ragi replaces wheat (Figure 2b), there is a change in calcium, though other nutrients either remain the same or even decrease.

Production Pattern of Millets

A greater challenge in revitalising millets is from the supply side, as it becomes relevant to determine whether it is feasible to introduce millets in the PDS, given its current production. As evident from Figure 3, the annual production of millets has hardly changed over the decades from around 14 million tonnes in 1955–56 to 17.3 million tonnes in 2014–15, and because of increase in population, the per capita availability of millets has fallen (Government of India 2017). Post 1975, there was a drastic decline in the area under cultivation for millets; this was at around 15 million hectares (mha) in 2014–15, which is 56% less as compared to 1975–76. On the other hand, there was a significant increase in the area under cultivation for most of the other foodgrains, especially for rice and wheat, which was approximately at 44 mha and 31 mha respectively in 2014–15 (Government of India 2017).

The underlying cause for this dismal trend for millets is mainly related to the lack of supportive policies. Rather, policies have mostly focused on rice and wheat, these crops having continuously received attention in research, extension and market support. The period of the green revolution in India resulted in the production of high-yielding varieties and high-input usage for rice and wheat. As a result, the yield of these crops more than doubled. The yield of rice and wheat were reported at 2,391 and 2,750 kilograms/hectare (kg/ha) respectively in 2014–15 (Government of India 2017). The focus up till now has been to achieve food security through rice and wheat. Though rice and wheat are not the main competitor crops for millets, at least in terms of cultivation, their example shows the positive impact of favourable policies.

In comparison, the yield of millets was calculated as 1,124 kg/ha as per 2014–15 data (Government of India 2017). There has hardly been any technological breakthrough in production, harvesting, and post-harvesting techniques for millets. One of the biggest challenges is pest infestation during the storage of millets, and hence, a shorter shelf life (Rajendran and Chayakumari 2003; Sharma et al 2007). Another concern is the calculation of minimum support price (MSP) by the government. As per the budget of 2018–19, although the MSP for millets has increased by 36%–52% as compared with the previous year, it is still not sufficient to generate reasonable returns (Kaur 2018; Mohan 2018). Moreover, the profitability from millet cultivation in comparison to its competing crops, particularly maize, oilseeds and cotton, favours the latter (Ayalew and Sekar 2015). This is driven by increases in yield and the spur in consumer demand for competing crops on the one hand, and factors such as lack of supply of good-quality seeds, input supply, market support, subsidies for millets on the other. Hence, it is detrimental to the cultivation of millets (DHAN Foundation and Wassan 2012; National Academy of ­Agricultural Sciences 2013).

The current state of millet production is despite the numerous advantages of cultivating millets. These mainly include drought tolerance, short to medium duration, low requirement of labour and physical inputs and resistance to pests and diseases (National Academy of Agricultural Sciences 2013). Some of the varieties provide assured harvest even in the most adverse conditions. Moreover, millets are predominantly grown by subsistence farmers in resource-poor and rain-fed agroclimatic regions of India. They provide a means of ensuring inclusive growth by contributing towards the livelihood and food security of these vulnerable groups (Singh et al 2010). In addition to consumption by humans, they are also used as fodder for animals. Millets are four-carbon product (C4) crops and hence are climate resilient; they have a potential role in reducing the burden of greenhouse gases (Michaelraj et al 2013). They are often cultivated in a mixed farming system, with other millet varieties, pulses, beans, and oilseeds. India is a storehouse of genetic diversity, including hybrids, improved, and local varieties. These qualities play an important role in fostering and enriching agricultural biodiversity.

Scope of Millets in PDS

To fulfil the recommended intake of millets at 100 gm/day, there is a need to examine economy-level production and consumption dynamics. As a first step, the status of current consumption of millets has been put forward, followed by the requirement and procurement of millets. The calculations have been segregated by the type of household as per the NFSA, and then aggregated together to present an economy-level picture. These figures have then been compared with the state of production of millets in India. As presented in Table 3, based on the NFSA’s new definition, the population and households are divided into three categories—Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY), priority households (PHH) and non-beneficiaries; these represent roughly 10%, 60% and 30% of the population respectively. The total number of households under AAY and PHH were taken from the ration card count data (Department of Food and Public Distribution 2013). The number of non-beneficiary households has been estimated as the total population of India (Government of India 2013) minus the number of beneficiaries, divided by the average household size of the non-beneficiaries, which was assumed as the household size as that of the richest 30% as per the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 68th round (NSSO 2013).

The calculations have been made for households rather than individuals since PDS rations are distributed at a household level. The average consumption of all the categories has been estimated using NSSO (2013) data by dividing the population into different wealth categories. The data was segmented into deciles and the poorest 10%, the middle 60% and the richest 30% were assumed to represent AAY, PHH and non-beneficiaries respectively. The total intake of millets has been calculated by adding the consumption of all three categories, that is, the total consumption in the economy in 2011–12. An important point to note here is that this also matches with the aggregate consumption if calculated as per capita consumption in India multiplied by the total population using NSSO (2013) and census data (Government of India 2013).

A comparison of the calculated aggregate consumption and production is presented in Figure 4. As is expected, there was enough domestic production in 2011–12 to fulfil the consumption requirement. However, it needs to be pointed out that there is a huge gap between production and consumption of around 11 million tonnes. It is beyond the scope of the present study to explain these missing grains, but even if factors such as under-reported consumption,2 barter transactions among farmers for other crops or buying inputs, procurement by the beer industry, seed, feed and wastage, are considered, this is an alarming gap and requires attention.

While the existing consumption pattern has been presented, it is often not optimal based on nutrient requirements. Table 3 also presents the expected aggregate procurement required for PDS based on optimal intakes. This has only been estimated for the section of the population which can be targeted through the PDS. An optimal intake would be based on the ­nutritional benefits of millets. Hence, as discussed in the previous section, it would require the replacement of one meal in a day with a millets-based meal for all individuals in the household. This sums up to 360 gm/day/household and 300 gm/day/household for AAY and PHH categories respectively. This assumes a daily requirement of 100 gm for an adult man, and an equivalent requirement by other household members per consumer units. Consumer units were used to give consumption weights to different members of the households based on gender and age.

A household size of five (two adults and three children) and four (two adults and two children) for AAY and PHH respectively has been considered. The total requirement of millets for PDS adds up to 20.8 million tonnes per year (MT/year). However, it should be remembered that all the grains produced cannot be fully utilised for procurement because there is a subset of the population that consumes food through the free market, that is, the non-beneficiaries. As assumed earlier, the free market demand for this population is expected to be as per the top 30% of the richest population from the NSSO (2013) data. When this free market demand based on their existing consumption pattern is added with the PDS requirements, the total adds up to 23 MT/year.

A comparison of this figure with the production figure of 2011–12 clearly implies that the production is not sufficient to meet the requirements. Further, if a conservative figure of 20% of production for factors such as seed, feed and wastage are considered, the availability of grains decreases, furthering the gap. For various reasons, such as millets serving as a fodder security for the farmers, industrial demand and other factors, the availability might be even less than 80%. It is important to note that the production was based on 2011–12 figures, and since then, the trend in production has been downward whereas the population has increased, further widening the gap as observed in 2011–12.

It is clearly visible that scaling this policy at a national level is not possible in the near future. However, certain states, ­especially those which are the major producers and consumers of millets, can be targeted. This makes sense not only from an operational perspective, but also because of consumer acceptability issues for millets. As an example, Karnataka has been considered, which is the highest producer as well as the consumer of ragi in India. Other varieties of millets are also cultivated and consumed, though they are not as popular as ragi. Undertaking a similar analysis as done for the national-level demonstrates that the production in Karnataka might be sufficient, if a combination of ragi and jowar are provided through the PDS. This has been presented in Figure 5. Note that this holds true even if 20% of seed, feed and wastage figures are accounted for in production. Similar calculations for Rajasthan and Maharashtra have been presented in Figure 5 and they demonstrate that sufficient quantities of millets are being produced.

Hence, in the short term, introducing millets in the PDS is feasible for some states but not at a national level. Eventually learning from experiences related to operations, acceptability, farmers’ response and various other factors, millet-based policies could possibility be scaled up in the rest of the country. Alternatively, from a policy perspective, another pos­sibility given the production challenges is to target the poorest of the poor, that is, AAY beneficiaries, and then scaling it up to the other category of beneficiaries. This group is the most ­vulnerable and suffers the most in terms of access and affordability to good nutrition and health systems. As is ­evident from Table 2, the production is sufficient to feed this target population.


The PDS is one of the major safety net programmes in India, which has evolved and matured over time. The need for food security was acutely felt during famine and drought conditions. The PDS was introduced during the time of the World War II (in the 1940s) with the objective of providing food in urban areas, and was later extended to rural areas in late 1970s (Das 2016; Pingali et al 2019). Due to the inefficiencies caused by leakages and corruption in the system, it was revamped in 1997 to target poor households alone, as TPDS. For the TDPS, the biggest challenge lay in identifying poor households, and the system was criticised for failures in this area. The basis for classifying beneficiaries is unclear and information on these variables is not easy to collect (Hirway 2003). Political favouritism also hit the poor substantially at the lowest levels in villages and excluded the entitlement of those most in need (Panda 2015). A few states like Tamil Nadu, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and parts of Odisha countered this problem by adopting universal entitlements, which led to better performance and increased the uptake of the PDS (Drèze et al 2015).

A further evolution was the introduction of the NFSA, in which the new phase of PDS aimed to target up to 75% and 50% of rural and urban population respectively. In this, priority households are entitled to receive 5 kg/month of foodgrains at a subsidised price of₹3, ₹2 and ₹1 per kg for rice, wheat and coarse grains. The AAY households, that is, the poorest of the poor, will continue to receive 35 kg of foodgrains per month. With changes in coverage, eligibility and identification, the foremost objective of the NFSA is, “to provide for food and ­nutritional security in human life cycle approach by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life with dignity” (Rajya Sabha 2014: vii). ­Nutritional security also covers good health, and coarse cereals, which are mainly comprised of millets, have traditionally been a part of the household food basket in India. Given their nutritional and health benefits, the present study explored the production, procurement and consumption of millets.

The findings suggest that millets are in a situation of crisis; this is true both in terms of their consumption and production. Though the inclusion of millets in the PDS is a welcome step, there are several challenges in successfully implementing this step. One of the many challenges is that of production, discussed extensively in this article. If the provision of adequate amount of millets through the PDS has to be realised at a national level, extensive efforts are required to increase the production. Clearly, a revival in agricultural policies is required, especially focused on the research and development of yield improvement technologies. Market-oriented reforms such as pricing and procurement policies may also be useful interventions, given the fact that many other crops already have such policy support. On the other hand, at the present level of production, it might be feasible to scale this policy in some states or by targeting the poorest.

Nevertheless, millets have a potential role in resolving ­nutrition-related problems of the country though there are challenges from the demand side. Consumers will not incorporate millets in their diets even if they are available at a low cost, unless they are made aware about their nutritional and health benefits. Millets fulfil about 30% of fibre and zinc, 40% of iron and 60% of calcium daily requirements through a single staple diet. As such, economic demand models based on secondary level analysis of food expenditure and consumption patterns in India predict negative income elasticity and a declining intake of coarse grains (Minocha et al 2019; Mittal 2010). This is not surprising given the historical notion of millets as a poor man’s food. On the other hand, they have potential as a value-added product, when consumed along with rice and wheat. Health-conscious consumers residing in metropolitan cities have accepted millets in mixed forms such as “multi-grain atta,” “ragi-based dosa batter,”3 etc. This is probably the start of a new trend and could possibly lead to a reversal in demand, not just in urban areas but also rural areas; where the rural populace often aspires to adapt to the food habits of its urban counterparts. More such innovative recipes are required, as well as the introduction of millet-based complementary foods such as khichri, upma,4 roti, etc, in feeding programmes.

In addition, investment in appropriate modern processing methods and clinical studies for millets are required, preferably in those states which have a cultural habit of eating it. This can help in improving the bioavailability and functionality of nutrients, as well as save people from the drudgery of processing and cooking millet by traditional methods. Though millets are rich in a variety of nutrients, the presence of some anti-nutrient phytochemicals like phytates, phenols and tannins interfere with the bioavailability, and hence, millets must be processed, either through modern or traditional methods, before they are consumed (National Academy of Agricultural Sciences 2013). At present, there is very limited research on the impact of different types of processing and preparation methods on bioavailability and functionality, and more needs to be done on this front. These integrated efforts, both from the consumption and the production side, will go a long way in contributing towards food security and the health of the population in a sustainable manner.


1 Based on the adjusted values of monthly purchase data for jowar, bajra, ragi and small millets from the household consumer expenditure survey, collected by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).

2 A small amount of the given millets may be consumed as a part of cooked meals from outside.

3 Dosa is a food item which looks like a crepe and is made of fermented rice batter.

4 Upma is a South Indian dish, similar to ­porridge, made from dry-roasted semolina or coarse rice flour.


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Updated On : 6th Sep, 2019


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