Genetic improvement of small millets in India during Pre and Post Crop Coordinated Project era

After decades of neglect, small millets are figuring in the Agricultural Development Agendas in some states. Millets are increasingly viewed as nutritive grains and hence the recent surge of interest in these crops. Nutritionists opine that regular inclusion of millet grains in the diets help in minimizing the full spread nutrition deficiency especially of minerals and vitamins in children, mostly urban and rural working men women and vulnerable sections of the population. Further, the large people in the country is compelled to increase production of all crops, whether major or minor and grown on the small or large area.

Small millets in India are a group of 6 grass cereal crops such as finger millet (ragi), foxtail millet (kangni), kodo millet (kodo), proso millet (cheena), barnyard millet (Sawan) and little millet (kutki). The area under these crops during the last six decades has significantly shrunk from 8 million in 1949‐50 to around 2.3 million in 2011‐12. This is also reflected in diminishing production, from around 4 million tonnes produced in the late forties to around 2.5 million tones in 2011‐12. The loss of area is very severe in all small millets other than finger millet.

However, in the last 15 years, the finger millet also has lost ground and area has come down from 2.4 million to 1.4 million ha and likely to lose further in the coming years. As regards productivity is conserved, finger millet has kept pace with most other major dryland crops in compound growth rates(CGR) for yield while the other small millets have shown little progress. By and large, the low productivity of these crops is largely due to the meagre attention received regarding inputs; water and technology back up which is further compounded by the low-value status of grain.


Progress in crop improvement

Small millets improvement efforts in India have been in progress since the beginning of the 20 the century (Seetharam, 1998). However, the launching of coordinated crop improvement programs during the late 1950s and 60s has contributed significantly by way of developing new superior varieties and concomitant production and protection technologies in all small millets.

The release of these varieties and production packages for general cultivation has helped in 5 fold increase in grain production from 50 million to 250 million tonnes in the country. It is seen that this increase has largely come from two major crops –rice and wheat‐ and less from dryland crops such as millets and more so from small millets. The small millets have been the last priority crops in the agriculture developmental agenda in the country.

Finger millet among small millets has received a little more attention than the rest, especially in the southern states. An attempt has been made here to trace the progress especially in the field of crop improvement during the last 100 years. Crop improvement efforts during the pre-coordinated project era. Before the launching coordinated project in the 1950s and 60s; the crop improvement in small millets was confined to fewer states such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. The emphasis was on varietal improvement through selection of better types from local cultivars.

In Tamil Nadu, Millet Research Station was established in 1923 at Coimbatore under the erstwhile Madras Presidency and the work later extended to Anakapalle (A.P.) and Hagari (Karnataka). Finger millet work in Karnataka dates back to 1900, initiated at Bangalore especially on finger millet and in Uttar Pradesh at Kanpur and Gorakhpur in 1944. As a pre-requisite to millet improvement, the inheritance of qualitative and quantitative characters, a period of anthesis, pollination and crossing methods were studied at Coimbatore.

The first finger millet variety released in the country was H 22 as early as 1918 in Karnataka. The other finger millet varieties released were Co 6 (1935); R 0870, ES13, K1, ES11 (1939); Hagari1 (1941), Co1, Co2, Co3, Co4 (1942), VZM 1, VZM 2 (1958) and T36 B (1949). Interest in finger millet improvement got a fillip in Karnataka during 1950‐60, and several new varieties such as Aruna, Udaya, K1, Purna, ROH 2 and Cauvery were released. Similarly, many varieties were released in other small millets also in many states (Seetharam, 1998). This included little millet variety Co 1 (1954); foxtail millet varieties Co1, Co2, Co 3 (1943), H1, H2 (1948), T 4 (1949); Kodo millet varieties PLR 1(1942, T 2 (1949), Co 1 (1953), proso millet variety Co 1 (1954) and barnyard millet varieties T 46, T25 (1949).

During the fifties, with food production remaining stagnant and with a rising population the importance of millet crops to Indian agriculture started gaining recognition, as they formed the important constituents of dryland agriculture. Project for intensification of research on cotton, oil seeds, and millets was launched during this period with several centres working on millets, The importance of genetic resources as primary raw material for crop improvement was recognized prior to initiation of coordinated project and the first attempt to collect the germplasm of millets in the country was made in 1961 under the PL 480 project on “storage, Maintenance and distribution of millets germplasm “ resulted in the collection of nearly 3000 genetic stocks of various small millets 718, finger millet,584 in Kodo millet,431 9 in little millet,615 in foxtail millet 250 in proso millet and 399 in barnyard millet.


Crop improvement efforts during the coordinated project era.

Small millets have always been of local and regional importance and as a result, have attracted little attention both at the national and International level. Millets, in general, started receiving attention with the launching of All India Coordinated Millets Improvement Project (AICMIP) in 1969. In this project, small millets also started receiving some attention at a selected few centres. Small millets improvement received the major boost during 1978‐79 with the establishment of five crop specific lead research centres in the country under IDRC assistance. They were Almora in Uttarakhand (barn yard millet), Dholi in Bihar (proso millet), Dindori in Madhya Pradesh (Kodo millet), Semiliguda in Orissa (Little millet) and Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh (foxtail millet).

In this, project finger millet was not included as it was already receiving some attention in the Coordinated Millets Improvement Project. The IDRC project continued till 1985, and the “All India Coordinated Small Millets Improvement Project” (AICSMIP) was established in the year 1986 with headquarters at The University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore. The centres that were functioning under the IDRC project became part of AICSMIP.

With the inception of separate AICRP, research on small millets has been getting focused attention for developing varieties and other agro production and protection technologies suitable to different regions. There are 14 centres functioning under AICSMIP spread all over the country to address the research needs of small millets. Small millets are known for their suitability to dry land areas, hill, and tribal agriculture and contribute to food and nutritional security of the disadvantaged regions. The research in the project is focused on state / regional needs from the point of developing appropriate varietal and agro-production technology for maximizing production/productivity. The work is multi‐disciplinary and applied in nature.


Germplasm availability

In the past small millets, scientists hardly had access to germplasm and worked with a handful of local collections which lacked diversity. This blunted the opportunities for of yield improvement through breeding. This situation was to some extent rectified in 1960 when first attempts were made by ICAR to pool the collections under PL 480 project as mentioned earlier. The conservation activities further gained momentum with NBPGR, New Delhi, playing a key role in augmenting the small millets collection.

Recognizing the importance and conservation and easy access to germplasm, AICMIP established a separate germplasm unit at Bangalore in 1979. This unit since then has been making efforts to collect as well as pool the available germplasm from various sources and make it available to breeders in the country. This unit is also recognized as National Active Germplasm Site (NAGS) by ICAR/NBPGR and has the mandate to assist in the collection, conservation, evaluation and documentation of small millets germplasm in the country (Seetharam, 2006). Presently the unit at Bangalore is maintaining one of the largest collections of more than 15000 accessions of 6 small millets (7122 in finger millet,2821 foxtail millet,1537 Kodo millet,939 proso millet,1657 little millet and 988 barnyard millet)in the country (AICSMIP,2012).


Utilization of germplasm

The full utilization of germplasm depends on two factors:

(1) Evaluation and characterization and (2) identification of useful gene sources. These two areas have received considerable attention during the last 25 years, and the majority of the accessions have been screened for agronomic, physiological, pathological and even important grain quality parameters. The breeding value of many accessions has been judged by growing in field trials more than once. There is good data base available for most accessions and germplasm catalogs have been brought out (Seetharam et al. 2006). To improve the efficiency of utilization of germplasm, core subsets have been formed and made available to breeders working at different centres.

Selected germplasm has also been evaluated in the all India testing network, and some superior accessions were identified, and a couple of them have been released for general cultivation in different parts of the country. The exotic collections especially from Africa in finger millet have been largely used in recombination breeding resulting in the release of many superior high yielding varieties in many states. The African germplasm has a thick stem, dark leaves, robust growth, large ears, and high grain density and source of resistance to blast disease (Naik et al.,1993). Hybridization between African and Indian elite varieties has been highly rewarding and has resulted in the release of many high yielding varieties in the country (Seetharam, 1998).

Several useful genetic stocks have been identified in all small millets accessions possessing higher protein, desirable agronomic attributes with high carbon dioxide fixation and low leaf area suitable for rain fed situations, and genotypes which can germinate under limited moisture under hard soil crust have been identified(Sashidar et al.,1983,1986; Seetharam et al.,1984; B.T.S.Gowda et al.1986).

Long glume types with higher ear photosynthesis reflecting in higher seed size and weight will be of interest in improving the yield of finger millet in the coming years (Sashidar et al., 1983). Accessions capable of producing higher biomass, dual purpose types with superior stover quality are available for improving grain and Stover yield of cultivars. Identification several sources of stable resistance to blast disease of finger millet and their deployment in breeding research has been highly rewarding in evolution of high yielding blast resistant cultivars in finger millet in the country (B.T.S.Gowda et al,1986; Ravikumar et al,1990,1991; Seetharam and Ravikumar,1993; Byre Gowda et al,1998,1999).

There is finger millet germplasm with significantly higher grain calcium and protein and useful in breeding for improving quality parameters. In the secondary gene pool, Eleusine coracana sub sps Africana will be of interest
from the breeding point of view. This could be a useful gene source for improving tillering ability, fodder yield and quality, drought tolerance and even finger number and length.

A care fully planned pre breeding is required for introgression of characters from E.africana to E. coracana for driving lines useful in regular breeding programs. In foxtail millet, new sources of dwarfing controlled by oligo genes have e been identified (Dinesh Kumar et al., 1992). These accessions are useful in breeding dwarf foxtail millet similar to the ones available in wheat. The variability available for protein content (7.176‐15.73) and seed fat content (4.0‐7.1) in foxtail millet is enormous and can be exploited directly and use in breeding (Laxminarayana et al., 1983).

The optimum use of utilization of germplasm in small millets is the most important in future breeding activities for making notable advances in the productivity of these crops and also to make small millets competitive vis‐ a‐ vis other crop options. Based on the evaluation and geographical origin, a core set of germplasm has been formulated in the finger, foxtail and proso millets for improving their utilization in the crop improvement. There is variability available for Stover quality parameters as well as quantity in the germ plasm of various small millets offering scope for the improvement of feed value of crop residues (Schiere et al., 2004; Subba Rao et al., 1995; )


Out come of crop improvement

The All India Coordinated Small Millets Improvement Project was established in the year 1986 with head quarters at University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore and with 14 centres spread across the country to address research needs of small millets. Small millets are known for their suitability to dry land areas, hill, and tribal agriculture and contribute to food and nutritional security of the disadvantaged regions. The research in the project is focused on state / regional needs from the point of developing appropriate agro production technology for maximizing production/productivity. The work is multi‐disciplinary and applied in nature.




  • Indian Institute of Millets Research
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