Why Do the Rich Want the Poor Man’s Food?

How come coarse cereals are suddenly all the rage? There was class division in food in India until now: the rich ate ‘fine’ cereals—rice and wheat—and poor ate ‘coarse’ cereals— bajra, ragi and jowar

Representative image
Representative image

Arun Sinha

Rich Indians are suddenly raving about coarse grains. They are singing paeans to not just major coarse cereals such as bajra, jowar and ragi, which used to be common food in some states, but also minor coarse cereals like kodo, kutki and jhangora, which were the staples of tribal communities living far away from ‘civilisation’—where, of course, rice and wheat ruled the tables.

Two months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a lunch where coarse cereals were served. Several Union ministers followed suit with copycat coarse-cereal luncheons. Celebrity chefs are suddenly writing about fusion recipes they have created with coarse cereals, and the five-star hotels where some of them work are offering these novelties as special attractions. Eateries have been set up in some places to offer ragi dosa, bajra pasta, jowar pizza and kodo biryani. Global and national businesses have also announced plans to bring ready-to-eat coarse cereal packages to the market.

How come coarse cereals are suddenly all the rage? There was a clear class division in food in India until now: the rich ate ‘fine’ cereals—rice and wheat—and the poor ate ‘coarse’ cereals— bajra, ragi and jowar. So much so that even the poor Indians, in order to be counted among the ‘civilised’, gave up eating coarse cereals and started eating fine cereals.

Of course, a large part of the blame for compelling the poor to throw ‘coarse’ cereals out of their diet and admit ‘fine’ cereals into it goes to the Indian State. Desperate in the 1960s to find a way to feed the population, the State bet on the cultivation of the high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat. And it worked. The green revolution provided the country food security. The State supplied cheap rice and wheat through the public distribution system. And the poor left ‘coarse’ cereals and got addicted to rice and wheat.

What to speak of the poor, even the lower middle classes in towns and villages who used to eat coarse cereals switched to rice and wheat as these were easily available in the market. As a consequence, the area across the nation under coarse cereals dropped from 37 million hectare in the mid-1960s to 14 million hectare in the mid2010s. According to ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics), India’s per capita consumption of millets fell from 32.9 kg to 4.2 kg per annum between 1962 and 2010.

Why does the nation want to shift back from fine cereals to coarse cereals now? Why are the rich Indians so desperate to eat the ‘poor man’s food’? Is it because study after study has shown that coarse cereals are the best for health? They are said to be high in protein, vitamins and micronutrients such as iron, are gluten-free and low in glycemic index. These cereals are said to control blood sugar and blood pressure, keep cholesterol low, protect the heart and improve digestive health.

With the rich rediscovering these qualities, they are no longer calling coarse cereals ‘coarse’. They now call coarse cereals ‘millets’. There are other fancy names. Some call them ‘nutri cereals’. Food businesses and celebrity chefs call them ‘superfood’. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her 2023-24 budget speech called them Sri Anna (a food grain which has divine grace).

But are we doing anything beyond glorification? What does Sitharaman’s budget have for Sri Anna? When one thumbs through the pages of allocations on agriculture in the Budget, one does not find much money there for Sri Anna’s elevation to the food throne. All it got was praise, but no active promotion.

If millets have to be promoted among both the rich and poor Indians—who have got addicted to rice and wheat—in order to save them from health disorders, the State cannot stop at just deifying and building a temple to Sri Anna. If she is a deity, she must be in every home and every heart.

And only when she is in every home and every heart that even India can hope to be a healthy, sound and robust nation. Because growing millets alone can save Indian agriculture. Millets demand very little water, fertilisers and pesticides. To grow one kilogram of rice, you need 4,000 litres of water. To grow one kg of millets, you just need 300 litres.

Growing only rice and wheat has meant depletion of groundwater, degeneration of soil with overdose of chemicals and ulcers to ecology. Growing less rice–wheat and more millets could help groundwater, the soil and the ecology recover their losses.

But for that, the State has to go beyond the lip service and take the five following measures with full sincerity:

One, it has to fix minimum support prices for millets and help their purchase. Odisha was the first to take measures to help growers earn good income from millets. Karnataka and Chhattisgarh are also doing so. The central government should take similar measures and reduce the rice–wheat quota to include millets in the public distribution system.

Two, the central government should allocate adequate funds for research and development of high-yielding millet varieties and take them to the growers. Seeds traditionally used by millet growers have given low yield, well enough for their subsistence. But if they have to produce for the market, their productivity has to be higher.

Three, processing millets is very arduous. The State has to develop low-cost and easy-to-use processing technologies and make them available at the farm gate.

Four, consumers do not prefer to cook millet recipes as it demands more time and effort. Also, they do not taste as good as rice or wheat preparations. Besides, they are heavier on the stomach. The State needs to take measures to overcome such consumer resistance.

Five, food regulation has been lax and corrupt. With rising demand for millets, the market will be flooded with millet products and ready-to-cook packages. The State must ensure people do not eat junk food while believing it to be nutritious.

ARUN SINHA is a journalist and the author of Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor

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