Millets vs Malnutrition: Reviving the super crop via nutrient-rich meals in Odisha’s anganwadis
Koraput: “Children happily eat little millet khichdi,” says Ispari Dani, an anganwadi worker in Goudaguda panchayat in Koraput district’s Lakhimpur block. “The new recipe has created curiosity among them.”
As many as 3,751 preschool children within 3 to 6 years of age, in Lakhimpur, are being fed little millet khichdi twice a week as part of the Odisha Millets Mission, a flagship programme launched by the state to revive millets in the tribal areas here. The initiative, run in collaboration with the Mission Shakti Department, also introduced millets-based dishes at anganwadi centres.
“Earlier, millets were considered a poor-man’s food. But now, even the government has recognised its health benefits,” Dani explains, hopeful that the younger generation will come to appreciate the nutritional value of this cereal crop.
Adivasi women play an instrumental role in introducing millets-based recipes to the meals of schoolchildren, to fight malnutrition and ensure dietary diversity among preschool children. The need for such a programme stems from the abysmal state of nutrition among young ones in the state – over 69 per cent of children in Odisha in the age group of 6 months to 4 years are anaemic, according to the National Family Health Survey-5, 2019. Similarly, in the age group of 5 years, 33.5 per cent are underweight, 43.1 per cent are stunted and 15.9 per cent are wasted. In Koraput district, where the mission has been introduced, over 44 per cent of the children are underweight, 40.6 per cent are stunted and 28.5 per cent are wasted.
The tribal revival
Located in the Eastern Ghats, Koraput is home to several indigenous communities and represents a unique mosaic of ethnic life and culture. Over 50% of its population belongs to the Scheduled Tribes, who sustain their livelihood primarily on rainfed agriculture, collection of uncultivated wild food and forest produce.
Over the years, monocropping and the use of chemical inputs to enhance crop yield eroded the rich agrobiodiversity once abundantly found in the tribal hinterlands. As a result, the area under millet cultivation shrunk, forcing the tribes to replace climate-resilient, nutritious traditional crops with hybrid paddy, maize and cotton. The public distribution of rice and wheat also lowered the importance of local food culture and preferences, while the influence of urban food diminished the demand for local cuisine, especially among the youth.
“These days, the diet of tribal children is not optimally diverse and has, instead, become cereal-centric,” says District Social Welfare Officer of Koraput Bidyulata Patra. “The traditional varieties of millets, pulses, vegetables and wild fruits, which they once consumed regularly, are now missing from their plates.”
Children between 0 to 6 years need special attention as the nutrition they receive at this time lays the foundation for their optimal development. During this phase, lack of a nutritious, balanced diet could result in lifelong health implications and increase the risk of a child becoming undernourished and prone to micronutrient deficiency.
Why local food matters
To address this challenge, “Inclusion of millets in the Integrated Child Development Service programme would transform the nutritional status of preschool children,” believes Sabita Sahu, Child Development Project Officer in Koraput’s Lakhimpur block. “This would increase dietary diversity and nutritional gains and also revive the age-old traditional culture of millet consumption.”
District Collector of Koraput Abdaal M. Akhtar (IAS) stresses, “It’s high time we promote these nutri-cereals to fight against malnutrition as millets are traditionally a major staple among tribal communities. They are also climate-resilient crops, can thrive with less water and have pest-resistant qualities.”
Similarly, Dr Debabrata Panda, Assistant Professor, Department of Biodiversity and Conservation of Natural Resources at Koraput Central University, points at the “immense potential” that such traditional crops have “to bridge the nutrition gap among women and children”.
“The diversity of local food should not be underestimated,” he warns.
Several studies have emphasised that millets are rich in protein with a balanced amino acid profile, making them superior to most other cereals like maize, wheat and rice. Millets are high in calcium and folate content, which helps in foetus development, whereas magnesium and potassium control blood pressure. The crop is non-glutinous, easy to digest and also beneficial for women suffering from polycystic ovarian disease, as it helps to cut down visceral fat and regulate menstrual cycles.
“Tapping the nutritional values of millets could be a potential low-cost, pragmatic strategy to enhance the nutrition intake in tribal areas,” says Nabakishore Kundu, a Lakhimpur-based medical officer.
The Odisha Millets Mission promotes millet consumption, production, value addition and marketing in 142 blocks in 19 tribal-populated districts. It reaches 1.5 lakh small-scale farmers and covers more than 75,000ha under millet cultivation. The crop is gradually regaining its value in the community’s food basket. Local women’s self-help groups (SHGs) and farmers’ producer organisations purchase millets directly from farmers at a fair price.
“This has been creating local demand for the forgotten millets,” says Suryakanth Nahak, Block Agriculture Officer, Lakhimpur. “Farmers are getting incentives under minimum support price for finger millets under the initiative.”
How are women benefited?
This nutri-sensitive programme has also been benefiting pregnant women and lactating mothers. Every month, they receive 4.9 kg of ragi chatua take home ration (THR), which is prepared from ragi, peanuts, sugar, sesame and cardamom powder. These women are encouraged to add water or milk to the ragi chatua THR and mix it well before consuming.
Women’s SHGs lead the THR unit in Lakhimpur. They prepare the ragi chatua and little millet khichdi from the training they received from WASSAN, a not-for-profit and the programme secretariat of the Odisha Millets Mission. Anganwadi workers, cooks and SHG members go through comprehensive capacity-building programmes on processing millets, preparing dishes, storage and maintaining general hygiene.
“This programme is an assured source of income for the women’s SHGs and farmers alike,” says Tapas Chandra Roy, Scheme Officer, Odisha Millets Mission, Koraput. “It will also boost local millet production and promote a circular economy, wherein the entire demand is met through locally grown millet.”
Priti Ranjan Ratha, Lakhimpur Block Development Officer, highlights how this state government initiative brings to focus the intricate link between agriculture and nutrition by engaging women on the frontline.
Sanari Miniaka, a tribal woman, farmer and member of an SHG in Toayaput village, Lakhimpur, says they can go for hours without the need for more food once they have a bowl of mandia jau (finger millet gruel).
“We can work hard throughout the day on our farms. If our children eat mandia regularly, they will become healthy and strong like our grandparents,” she adds.
Sarpanch of Goudaguda panchayat Bhagabati Muduli says they will monitor the quality of food delivered to the area’s anganwadi “to ensure the best quality, hygienic food for preschool children”.
According to a government official, the state will analyse the learnings from this programme and replicate the model in other districts of the state. The aim is to make Koraput self-sufficient with respect to the production, procurement and distribution of millets from farm to plate.
The Public Distribution System
“For decades, food grain self-sufficiency has been the focus of food delivery programmes in India, not nutrition,” points out Devinder Sharma, food policy and agricultural trade expert. “These provided calories but didn’t address protein and micronutrient deficiencies.”
Moreover, nutritionists and food policy experts largely criticised the recent announcement that fortified rice would be provided through the PDS and Mission POSHAN 2.0.
“It largely ignores the role of a balanced and diverse diet,” explains Dr Vandana Prasad, a public health expert also associated with the Right to Food campaign. “Merely raising the iron intake will be futile because dietary diversity facilitates the uptake of iron for the body, which is critical to address anaemia.”