Bengaluru: Drought-hit Karnataka aims to become the top producer of millets, a nutritious variety of grains that require just a fifth of the amount of water needed for growing rice.

Karnataka has been suffering from deficient rainfall, resulting in acute drinking water shortage and large scale crop losses. Millets can be grown without irrigation and can withstand an up to 30% deficiency in rainfall, a key factor behind the push for the grains as the state faces its second consecutive year of drought.

Karnataka has invested about Rs150 crore in seed subsidies, market buyback programmes and promotional activities for millets. Other than ragi, millets have so far received little state attention.

Rice and wheat received most of the technological investment during India’s Green Revolution and gained popularity so that millet came to be seen as second-grade grains and food for poor people, Krishna Byre Gowda, Karnataka’s agriculture minister said in an interview.

The state government is also organizing a national trade fair at the end of April. It is also planning targeted awareness programmes for nutritionists, health correspondents and hotel management colleges.

“We are working with various restaurants and institutes that make everything from waffles, bread and pastries, to cakes and cookies with millets. Mount Carmel (College, Bengaluru) has a cafe where we are working with them on making cupcakes with millets," Gowda said.

But for its millet push to work, the Karnataka government would need support from large, national retailers, more so as it wants to expand the market for lesser known millets, said Gowda.

The government plans to especially popularise farming of lesser known varieties such as navane (foxtail millet), araka (kodo millet), oodhalu (barnyard millet), korale (brown top millet) and saame (little millet) more than the better known ones such as ragi or nachni (finger millet), jola or jowar (sorghum) and bajra (pearl millet).

Retailers selling millets have so far mostly stuck to ragi, a traditionally popular variety in Karnataka, with breakfast cereals such as Kottaram Agro Foods Pvt. Ltd’s Soulfull and Kellogg’s India ragi version of Chocos, Britannia Industries Ltd’s Nutrichoice and MTR Foods Pvt. Ltd’s ready-to-eat ragi dosa and ragi rava idli mixes.

“We have an Rs1,000 crore brand called Golden Harvest within our portfolio and in the next two months we are going to be launching our own range of millets such as jowar, bajra, kodo and barnyard among others. We will be taking it to all our stores – Big Bazaar, Easy Day, Heritage and Nilgiris – and we anticipate millets becoming a sizeable category within Golden Harvest within the couple of years," said Devendra Chawla, chief executive of Future Consumer Ltd. 

ID Fresh Food India Pvt. Ltd, which sells ready-to-cook idly and dosa batter, also plans to launch a ragi version of both batters in the coming months. While the firm hasn’t weighed non-ragi millet options yet, it also foresees huge potential for the grains.

However, according to Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission chairman, T.N. Prakash Kammardi, the government has to do a lot more.

“If you want more farmers to grow millets, then you must compensate them. Paddy gets fertilizers and fertilizer subsidy, water and water subsidy. If you can subsidize polluting crops, then you must compensate farmers going in for climate resilient crops," Kammardi said. There is always the possibility that even millets could backfire. Karnataka has faced a deficiency of over 50% in rainfall this year. If the state has to deal with another year of such high deficiencies, even growing millets will be a difficult task, said Gowda.