The millets are a group of small-seeded species of cereal crops or grains, widely grown around the world for food and fodder. They do not form a taxonomic group, but rather a functional or agronomic one. Their essential similarities are that they are small-seeded grasses grown in difficult production environments such as those at risk of drought. They have been in cultivation in East Asia for the last 10,000 years.

The millets include species in several genera, mostly in the subfamily Panicoideae, of the grass family Poaceae. The exceptions, finger millet and teff, are in the subfamily Chloridoideae. The most widely cultivated species in order of worldwide production are:

  • Pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) (Also known as Bajra in hindi, and as Kambu in Tamil).
  • Foxtail millet (Setaria italica) (Also known as Thinai in Tamil).
  • Proso millet, common millet, broom corn millet, hog millet or white millet (Panicum miliaceum).
  • Finger millet (Eleusine coracana) (Also known as Ragi or Mandwa in hindi, and as Kezhvaragu in Tamil).

Minor millets include:

  • Indian barnyard millet or Sawa millet (Echinochloa frumentacea).
  • Japanese barnyard millet (Echinochloa esculenta).
  • Kodo millet (Paspalum scrobiculatum)).
  • Little millet (Panicum sumatrense).
  • Guinea millet (Brachiaria deflexa = Urochloa deflexa).
  • Browntop millet (Urochloa ramosa = Brachiaria ramosa = Panicum ramosum).
  • Teff (Eragrostis tef) and fonio (Digitaria exilis) are also often called millets, as more rarely are sorghum (Sorghum spp.) and Job's Tears (Coix lacrima-jobi).

In India, eight millets species (Sorghum, Finger millet, Pearl millet, Foxtail millet, Barnyard millet, Proso millet, Kodo millet and Little millet) are commonly cultivated under rainfed conditions. In order to analyze the existing Area, Production & Productivity trends of Coarse cereals in the country, share of Coarse cereals vis-a-vis major crops in the country prior to “Green Revolution” and onwards need be appraised. The area assigned to Coarse cereals vis-a-vis major crops in terms of percentage to the Gross Cropped Area (GCA) in the country is enumerated below in Table.

Further, in each of the millet growing areas at least 4 to 5 species are cultivated either as primary or allied crop in combination with the pulses, oilseeds, spices and condiments (as detailed in the previous section). For instance, while Pearl millet and Sorghum are primary crop and allied crops respectively in the desert regions of Rajasthan, in the eastern parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat it is the opposite. Similarly, Sorghum is sown as major crop in the Telangana (Andhra Pradesh), Maharashtra and parts of Central India, while it is considered as fodder crop in some of the Southern regions. Likewise, Finger millet is a primary crop in Tamil Nadu and Gharwal, while the same is a minor crop in Telangana. Hence, the spatial distribution of millets either as a primary crop or as allied crops largely depends on the growing habitat and the amount of rainfall the region receives. While Sorghum predominates in areas receiving annual rainfall beyond 400 mm, Pearl millet rivals it in areas with annual rainfall of 350 mm (please refer to Chart below). Further, the small millets like Finger millet, Foxtail millet, Barnyard millet, Little millet and Proso millet are found in most of the Southern and Central States in India especially wherever annual rainfall is below 350 mm, perhaps where no other cereal crop can grow under such moisture stress.

However, in spite of a rich inter/intra-species diversity and wider climatic adaptability cultivation of diverse millet species/ varieties is gradually narrowing in the recent past. In a way, a lack of institutional support for millet crops in contrast to the institutional promotion of Rice and Wheat continue to shrink the millet-growing region. Over the last 50 years, the share of ‘Coarse grains’, which include Pearl millet, Sorghum, Maize, Finger millet, Barley and 5 other Millet species known as ‘Small Millets’, in terms of total area has registered constant decline in area. In spite of this, several communities in the dry/ rainfed regions having known the food-qualities of Millets over generations continue to include a range of Millets in the traditional cropping patterns, who recognise Millets as an essential part of the local diet.

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