On October 28, the Centre proposed millets be introduced in mid-day meals to tackle the growing problem of malnutrition among school students. Though, in the past, some of the non-BJP ruled states, like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, tried to be innovative with the menu, introducing eggs once or twice a week as protein substitutes to fish and meat, it met with local resistance and ultimately scrapped. Milk and soyabean, were also thought of as replacements by the vegetarian politicians, but sustainability was a big question. As Centre kept toying with the options, the Global Hunger Index placed India on 94th spot among 107 countries. It was also observed that malnutrition among children and mothers accounted for 15 per cent of the country’s total disease burden.
Millet as a cereal and, above all, a vegetarian option was widely accepted because it was considered to be a mineral rich food with all the goodness of fibre. Morever, since it hydrates the colon, it prevents constipation in children and is considered healthy for the gut. Millets are high in protein and nutritionists believe introducing millets in children’s diet will help in muscle growth. Since it has smart carbohydrates and a low glycaemic index, lower than wheat and rice, the risk of obesity is reduced in children. Rich in vitamin B complex, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc, millets are being thought of as worthy substitutes to eggs. Besides being alkaline in nature, they are easily digestible for infants.
Over and above Millets are vegetarian and so will be happily assimilated in the BJP governed states which had earlier created a ruckus over eggs.
But another question doing the rounds is whether millet will find easy acceptance in states like Bengal, Assam and Odisha where rice is a staple. Millets, that is Bajara, jowar and ragi, are largely seen as the cereal of choice of people of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. So, includwqing the item in mid-day meals of Bengal, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Assam could be seen as a forceful intrusion of ‘North Indian’ food habits. Bengal children love their rice and khichdi with ladles of lentil soup and a veggie mish-mash.
Aware that it might be seen as a cultural imposition, the Central agriculture principal secretary suggested that millet be introduced once a week till kids get a hang of it. In Bengal, students eat boiled rice, daal, vegetable, fish or egg twice a week. On some days, soyabean chunks are served as a substitute for non-vegetarian meal. When eggs made it to the menu, several wings of the BJP tried making noises, but West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee was determined not to let such groups dictate the state’s taste, food traditions and clothing habits. Now, with introduction of millet on the platter, the government is a little worried. One, it doesn’t have a millet stock in its backyard to take care of the ration requirement of mid-day meals. Also, it might not get an encouraging response among school children leading to drop-outs. As per a state government official, Bengal is considering sending off a letter to the Centre, expressing disinterest as it will not augur well with Bengali food culture.
According to former professor of political science of Calcutta University, Sovonlal Dutta Gupta, millet is going to raise the standard of nutrition among school kids but it is definitely going to meet with resistance as neither climate nor food habits of Bengal will sync with millet.