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The Tamil Nadu government has decided to sell millets and value-added millet products through the Public Distribution System (PDS). On a pilot basis, they will be available at fair price shops in Chennai and Coimbatore. Tamil Nadu Agriculture Minister M R K Panneerselvam while presenting the agriculture budget said that the millets will be procured by cooperative societies and distributed through PDS shops.

A seven-member state level committee will be constituted for this project, and district level committees headed by the district collector will handle the execution. Millets, namely kezhvaragau (finger millet), kambu (pearl millet), thinai (foxtail millet), kuthiraivali (barnyard millet), saamai (little millet) and varagu (kodo millet), will be procured from Farmers Producer Organisations (FPO) for distribution through PDS.

In 2018-19, while the area under cultivation of paddy was 17,21,265 hectares, which produced 61,31,550 tonnes of the grain (3,562 kg per hectare), the equivalent for pearl millet (kambu) was 46,883 hectares and 1,18,007 tonnes (2,517 kg per hectare), government figures say. For finger millet (ragi), it was 78,563 hectares and 2,55,975 tonnes (3257 kg per hectare) and for minor millets 22,251 hectares and 35,008 tonnes (1,573 kg per hectare).

Sorghum and maize had more area under cultivation compared to millets. Sorghum was cultivated in 3,85,842 hectares, which produced 4,64,481 tonnes. Unlike sorghum, whose productivity per hectare is the lowest of these grains at 1,204 kg per hectare, maize, which was planted in 3,90,602 hectares and produced 28,34,437 tonnes of the grain, has a big per hectare output of 7,257 kg.

Inmathi talks to Tirunelveli-based organic farmer Pamayan on this development.

Millets were widely consumed in Tamil Nadu once. The push for rice sidelined millet cultivation. As their cultivation dwindled, the consumption also reduced or vice versa. People have now resumed millet consumption because they have become aware of the health benefits. Low supply at a time of demand turned millets into a premium food product.

What is your opinion on this new initiative from the government?

We welcome this new initiative. Millets are dry land crops and require little water. This new move will push more farmers into millet farming. It will be a win-win situation because more farmers will take up millet farming and they will get good prices too.

Millets have turned into a premium product. Do you think the government will give farmers a competitive price?

Millets were widely consumed in Tamil Nadu once. The push for rice sidelined millet cultivation. As their cultivation dwindled, the consumption also reduced or vice versa. People have now resumed millet consumption because they have become aware of the health benefits. Low supply at a time of demand turned millets into a premium food product.

The rate at which rice and millets are cultivated is vastly different. For instance, a millet farmer can produce only two to four bags of millets against 40 bags of paddy. But the market price for millets is really high. I am confident that the state government would keep all these factors in mind to give a competitive price to farmers while procuring millets from them.

Do you think the government procuring millets for PDS will solve marketing problems faced by millet farmers?

Farmers don’t face marketing problems with millets, as there is demand. The issue is that they don’t cultivate millets widely. Millets are cultivated seasonally and on dry lands. When a government becomes a buyer, it opens up an assured market and farmers will start cultivating millets more. A lot of them cultivate maize because it consumes lesser water. Now maize farmers will switch over to millets.

How do you assess the demand for millets among people?

Paddy cultivation requires a lot of chemical inputs. Millets don’t require so much. They can be raised without any chemical inputs at all. So, millets are healthy and free from chemicals. A lot of people now consume millets to keep diseases at bay. But millets are costly too. This new initiative can help people to get millets at affordable prices at PDS shops. Once millets were the staple diet of poor people, and now they may be able to afford to buy millets again through PDS.

Tell us about the extent of millet cultivation in Tamil Nadu

Barnyard millet and kodo millet are cultivated widely in southern Tamil Nadu. Little millet and foxtail millet are predominantly cultivated in northern Tamil Nadu. Finger millet and pearl millet are cultivated across the state. The state government initiative will greatly boost the cultivation area. (According to Tamil Nadu government figures, 65% of food grain cultivated in the state was rice, 15% maize, 14% sorghum, 3% finger millet (ragi), 2% pearl millet (kambu) and 1% minor millets.)

Paddy cultivation requires lot of chemical inputs. Millets don’t require so much. They can be raised without any chemical inputs at all. So, millets are healthy and free from chemicals. A lot of people now consume millets to keep diseases at bay. But millets are costly too. This new initiative can help people to get millets at affordable prices at PDS shops.

Do you think there will be a major shift among people from rice to millets? Will they take to millets being offered through PDS or insist only on rice?

Not completely. Millets will be an addition to rice. The government says the introduction of millets to the PDS will be on a pilot basis, starting with 500 grams per cardholder. The initiative will ensure that everybody will be able to get the grains which have turned into premium products and become unaffordable for the poor.

Should the government introduce millets in midday meals scheme too?

We, farmers, insisted that millets should first be given in midday meals. But the government is moving through PDS. We continue to insist that children should get the benefit of consuming millets. The state government should start providing millet-based food in midday meal schemes as well.

The idea of millets is that they are consumed where they are produced. Don’t you think this centralized procuring and distribution defeats that concept?

I don’t think those ideas work anymore. Agriculture is modernized now. Millet production in Tamil Nadu is not so widespread and a good amount of the food grain cultivated in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh also comes to Tamil Nadu since the demand is greater here.


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