On 2 September 2013, an adamant United Progressives Alliance government sailed through stiff opposition in the Rajya Sabha to pass an ambitious legislation: the National Food Security Act. The NFSA, which had been in the making for nearly a decade, aimed to make food a legal entitlement of the population. Under it, 75 percent of the rural population and 50 percent of the urban population—nearly 800 million people at the time—would receive subsidised food grains. The act promised nutritional security to women and children in particular, and mooted the digitisation of ration cards to prevent leakages and duplication in public distribution systems, or PDS. It also proposed plans to revitalise India’s agriculture in favour of small and marginal farmers.
One key reform proposed in the NFSA was the inclusion of millets—tall grasses with heads of small seeds, a climate-resilient coarse cereal—in the PDS, where for decades rice and wheat had remained the dominant cereals, and the encouragement of its local sourcing. According to the act, all households eligible under the PDS would be able to purchase millets at Rs 1 per kilogram.
India is the largest producer of millets in the world, and accounts for more than 40 percent of the global consumption. Historically, millets have been the staple food for indigenous communities in the semi-arid regions of Asia and Africa—India, Niger, China, Mali, Nigeria and Sudan are the top five millet-producing countries in the world as well. In India, for the poor, for instance among tribal people residing the highland areas such as Himalayas, and for farmers in dry areas including the Deccan, central India, western Indian states such as Gujarat and Rajasthan, and the western ghats, millets have long acted as a nutritional supplement. Millets are classified into roughly eight types based on their grain size, although less popular varieties exist. According to Millets: Future of Food and Farming, a report published by the Deccan Development Society, an organisation that works with women farmers’ collectives in villages in Telangana, “millets dwarf rice and wheat” when it comes to their mineral content. An August 2016 report by IndiaSpend, a data journalism initiative, noted that barnyard millet has nearly five times the iron content and three times the mineral content of wheat, and is comparable in its protein content; pearl millets have six times more iron than rice, and four times the calcium density.
Though many political leaders criticised the bill, several agricultural experts hailed the NFSA as a decisive step towards promoting millets. The bill was perceived to have two-fold implications: the price could spur demand for millets and aid 31 million coarse-grain farmers in India—mostly small and marginal farmers in dry-land India, who cultivate millets, sorghum and maize, and who were plagued by lack of fair or uniform pricing and unstable demand for their crops. As a nutritious grain with qualities that made it superior to rice and wheat, the millet was also expected to act as a much-needed nutrition intervention tool, especially in rural India.
But in the three years that have passed since the act was implemented, little has changed on the ground level for millets. Apart from Karnataka, distribution through PDS has not begun across the country. Even though the act promoted decentralised sourcing from farmers—where the grains are sourced and distributed locally keeping in mind the peculiarities and needs of each region, a move that will ensure constant demand for crops such as millets—nothing to that effect has been implemented.