Friday, November 22, 2013

Revisiting the traditional

'In the olden days we never fell ill. We worked and worked hard. We did not feel the heat of the sun in the middle of summer nor the chill of the winter. Our elders lived to ripe old ages and our women were much healthier. We went walking to distant lands and would never get tired. We ate things we cultivated in our fields and drank the water from the streams which passed through our village'

This is a common refrain that I hear again and again in agrarian communities of different parts of the country . . . . Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Maharashtra, the North East and now Jharkhand. 

They continue - 'not anymore. Our young men do not like to work. In fact, they are not strong enough to work hard. They are tired always. They find it difficult to walk on foot to the next village. They prefer to sit chitchatting and day-dream. We cultivate new things in our fields about which we do not have much idea. Our water bodies are dry most of the time and when they are full, the water is polluted . . . And to top it all, we have diseases which we've never heard before . . .

If one has the time to listen, there are umpteen stories of change that a wizened old man in a village can narrate. 

Having served in the area of healthcare for the last 10 years, the major issues that seem to have changed the susceptibility of the population to poor health and diseases all point to malnutrition as the primary cause.

Many of us think about malnutrition as only a condition which occurs when there is a shortage of food. However, that is not the case. It means much more than that. Classically, it is defined as the condition that results from eating a diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess or in the wrong proportions.

In almost all the rural areas that I visited, I was shocked to find out that in the olden days rice was only one of the options of the cereal in the diet and wheat was quite foreign in many regions especially in the south of the country. There were other choices which got wiped off with the advent of the green revolution. The green revolution guaranteed wiping off hunger and ushering in prosperity to farmers. 

We all thought that we had hit the goldmine. 

Not any more. The high prevalence of non-communicable diseases in the country points to a different story. The high calorie diets of rice and wheat based food brought in diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure and also ensured that the we became deficient in micronutrients and vitamins. 

What exactly were the other choices of food which our forefathers had? 

In Tamil Nadu, they talk about the good old days when Thinai (foxtail millet) or Pani Varagu (proso millet) with milk were common diets. Village born and city bred folk talk about the 'kool and kali' made out from finger millet (ragi) and pearl millet (bajra/kambu). Come to the north of the country, and they talk about the Thopa Roti made out of finger millet (madwa), the Gundali rice (another local millets) of yore and the Kodo rice which ensured that hunger stayed far away. 

As I talked to scientists in this area, almost all of them expressed helplessness in ensuring that these grains remained in common use. However, there has been major breakthroughs in the cultivation and propagating the consumption of millet grains like finger millets (ragi/madwa). However, there are many other types of millets which are unique to certain parts of the country. Unfortunately, many millet varieties are on the verge of extinction. 

Why are they so precious to us? And there one would find the answer to the hardiness and the disease resistance that our forefathers possessed. High in vitamins and micro-nutrients, these millets are virtual store-houses of immunity. 

The table below is quite self-explanatory . . .

Protein (gm)
Fibres (gm)
Minerals (gms)
Iron (mg)
Calcium (mg)
Finger millet
Pearl millet
Proso millet

And it is not surprising that millet based porridges like finger-millet porridge is much recommended as good weaning food for infants. 

Now, there is one more angle to the story of millets. And this is the nature of the crop to withstand drought and for the grain to resist pests. Which makes it all the more an answer to climate change and farmer distress. 

Summing it up . . .

- Millet crops are hardy and require less water. 

- They can be grown in low fertile soils.

- Millets grow better with biofertilizers.

- Most of the millets are pest-free. In traditional societies, they used to be used as used as anti-pest agents to store pulses etc. 

- Nutrient to nutrient, most of the millets are much superior to rice and wheat.  

I'm glad that Dabur has given an opportunity to put this write-up. I'm sure that millet based diet is going to play a major role in building a stronger, healthier and a more immune India. 


  1. Really interesting and well-written. All the best for the contest.

    My entry for the contest is at Hope you like it.

  2. Great Article, Wendy and I are pro-millets. WE have been gluten free for about a year now and loving it.

  3. Millet sounds like a good addition back into the diet.

    As for the old men talking: "Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
    ― Marcel Proust

  4. Interesting facts Jeevan about Thinai and Pani vagaru. A quality post.

    Would appreciate your candid comments on my post at

  5. Hi, really interesting! I believe moving from traditional diets to modern/foreign diets that are supposedly cool or the in-thing and pesticides and genetic food engineering is contributing a lot towards growth of non-communicable diseases.

  6. Old is gold and I always love the old form of diet and even health food. People say prices go up but no one seems be stopping going to fast food shops and restaurants. The problems is not people have more money also

  7. The sad truth. I agree to your points that most effective healthy dishes that were close to us are now in the verge of extinction due to the arrival of fast foods which in turn decreases immunity in us. And what about the adulteration and pesticides used in growing these crops? Money took the lead leaving health of a common man behind...though we know the truth, we are helpless :( ... at-least we can share and spread what is left with us to the next generation who might not even know this