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Going against the grain

  • Yogendra Yadav

A CASUAL conversation with a doctor in Rewari brought out something unusual. He said he had documented at least 500 cases of wheat allergy among his child-patients. Wheat allergy in this wheat-eating belt? I was surprised. “And how do you treat it?” His answer was even more of a surprise. “Actually, it is an allergy to gluten, which is found in wheat, but not in coarse grains like bajra (pearl millet). Our body is not constituted for so much gluten.” So, I simply advised that these children should be put on the same diet as their grandparents when they were kids. Once the children are put on a staple diet of bajra, the allergy disappears. In any case, bajra is more nutritious, for it has more fibre and iron. The shift to an all-wheat diet is a curse.
This reminded me of something I have heard from my father. In his childhood, bajra roti or bajra ki khichdi was the staple diet. Wheat roti (manda as it was called then) was a luxury, something he would get when a guest came visiting. Rice was, of course, unknown, except as a sweetdish, meant to be consumed in kheer or with ghee-bura. In my childhood, we had shifted to wheat roti. Bajra roti was now rarely consumed during winter with white butter and gud. That continues to be my favourite winter food even now. But the wheat roti I had was actually missi roti (wheat mixed with channa and jau; barley). Polished rice had not yet entered our diet except as an occasional treat.
By now, the transition is complete. The staple food is now based on fine wheat aata and polished rice. This “modern” diet represents double tragedies. It represents culinary tragedy as we have lost traditional taste and recipes. Colonisation of North Indian cuisine by mattar paneer, daal makhani and naan made from maida is an assault on our tastebuds and our food heritage. It is also a nutritional tragedy as we move away from fibre-rich nutritional food to low-quality food.
This tragedy is rooted in policy and politics. What is called the “Green Revolution” was, for all practical purposes, a wheat revolution. The country faced a famine between 1965 and 1967. The State response was to put enormous resources for a massive increase in production of wheat in a small part of the country. The wheat thus produced initially in Punjab, Haryana and western UP was distributed throughout the country with the help of the public distribution system. The sudden availability of cheap wheat replaced traditional coarse grains like bajra, jowar, barley, ragi and kodu. The highly popular schemes of cheap rice in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu took this process further and pushed other forms of coarse grains out of our diet.
This is an ecological and economic disaster as well. These coarse grains were grown largely in the dryland regions of the country. These crops require much less water than wheat or rice and could be grown in areas with low irrigation and scanty rainfall. A shift from millets to wheat or rice has meant excessive demand for water, irresponsible exploitation of ground water and greater vulnerability in times of drought. This translates into economic vulnerability of the farmer. The farmer is now dependent on market and government procurement. The consumer is also dependent on more expensive food grains or cheap availability through ration shops. All in all, we have managed to replace tasty and nutritious food with monotonous and poor quality food, ecologically sustainable farming with destruction of soil and self-reliant agriculture with hopeless dependence.
This larger tragedy can be seen in what happened to bajra crop this year in Haryana. The state produces about one-sixth of the total production of bajra in the country. Within Haryana, its production is concentrated in southern districts, which fall in the arid zone with low irrigation. Bajra is still the major kharif crop here, despite reduction in cropping area over the last few decades. This year, the expected production of bajra in Haryana was 96.4 lakh quintal. The government set a target of 1 lakh quintal for procurement. The MSP was fixed at Rs 1,425, only 11.5 per cent above the average national cost of Rs 1,278. The official cost estimate for Haryana was actually Rs 1,512, well above the official price. This is, of course, nowhere close to Rs 1,917 that the government should have paid as per the formula suggested by the Swaminathan Commission — i.e. 50 per cent over and above the cost of production. Thus the bajra producer in Haryana was cheated in multiple ways. First, the BJP’s manifesto promise of ensuring price equivalent to one and a half times the cost of production was not fulfilled. That would have meant an MSP of Rs 1,917. Instead, the government declared an MSP of Rs 1,425, less than even the official cost of production in Haryana. Second, even this official MSP was not delivered to farmers. Bajra started arriving in the mandis in the first week of September. Despite several representations and delegations, the government refused to start procurement before October 1. Eventually, the procurement began on October 12. By then, the farmer had sold most of the crop at an average price of Rs 1,100. In Rewari mandi alone, the farmers were forced to sell 1.37 lakh quintal bajra before the procurement began. The procurement on official price was nearly 5,162 quintal.
Third, procurement at official price was concentrated outside the core area of bajra production in districts of Rewari, Mahendragarh and Bhiwani. As much as 76,000 quintal bajra was procured at the official MSP in Jhajjar district. Incidentally, this is the home-district of the state agriculture minister. The government has now officially closed procurement as it has already crossed its target. The government says there is very little demand for bajra and hence it cannot procure more. So, here is a vicious cycle. The government discourages the production of bajra, which leads to lower availability and lower demand, which leads to lower procurement, which further discourages the farmers from growing this crop. This is how we kill a nutritious and an eco-friendly millet.
What’s the way out? How do we break this vicious cycle? This is a big question for food security. The answer lies in politics; not just electoral politics. A combination of state policy, political mobilisation and public education is required. The government must stop all perverse incentives in favour of wheat and rice and against coarse grains. Public distribution system and midday meals must have greater proportion of millets. Millet producers must be mobilised to put pressure on the government and to demand better incentive for an eco-friendly crop like bajra. There has to be a consumer movement about the health benefits of coarse grains. A healthy India needs healthy politics.

About Jatin Kamboj