The use of millet as a staple food in India dates back to ancient times, with some of the oldest Yajurveda texts mentioning foxtail millet, barnyard millet, and black finger millet. Archaeobotanical studies have shown evidence of millet cultivation in India for thousands of years, from pre-Harappan culture to the present. Millets have been found in various archaeological sites, including Rohira, Hulas, and several locations in Gujarat and Karnataka. Evidence of the cultivation of jowar millet, barley, wheat, lentils, and horse gram has been found in the pre-Harappan period. Recent evidence from Surkotda, Rangpur, and Rojdi has shown millet cultivation. At Surkotda, Setaria italica was discovered early, marking the first time it has been found in such a context. These grains were widely used in various Indian cuisines and essential to the Indian diet. However, over time, their popularity declined, and they were considered coarse and of substandard quality, making them unsuitable for a more sophisticated palate.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, Indian agriculture underwent significant changes due to various internal and external factors. The advent of railways and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 provided a new and shorter route from India to Europe. This significantly impacted Indian agriculture, as it allowed for more accessible transportation of crops and greater access to international markets. The commercialisation of agriculture became prominent around 1860 CE, during the American Civil War, which increased the demand for cotton from India to Britain. After the Industrial Revolution, the British needed cotton to feed their rapidly growing cotton-textile industries, and India became a vital source of raw cotton. This led to a shift in agricultural practices, with farmers focusing on producing crops that could bring commercial cash gain to the British in the European or American markets. The commercialisation of Indian agriculture was primarily focused on feeding the British industries. India needed to catch up in industrial development compared to European countries such as Britain, France, and Belgium in the eighteenth century. Only those agricultural products that were either needed by the British industries or could bring commercial cash gain to the British were given attention. As a result, efforts were made to increase cotton production in India to provide raw and high-quality cotton to the growing cotton-textile industries in Britain after the Industrial Revolution.
The decline in millet cultivation was due to the increasing demand for other crops, such as wheat, oilseeds, and cotton.
The company focused on cultivating and trading valuable crops such as indigo, cotton, raw silk, opium, pepper, tea, and sugar during the 19th century. These crops were highly priced and were not in competition with any British products. Raw silk and cotton were in demand by British weavers and could not be produced domestically. Opium, despite Chinese import prohibitions, was smuggled into China. Indigo was a textile dye that was necessary for the West. Tea cultivation was introduced in Assam so Britain could control its supply and not depend on China. On the other hand, millet cultivation decreased during the late colonial period as it was replaced by wheat and other cash crops. The cultivation of jowar and bajra declined from a growth rate of 0.8 per cent and 0.78 per cent, respectively, between 1891-1901 to -0.97 per cent and 0.2 per cent at the end of 1940.
According to John Augustus Voelcker, the increasing demand for wheat, oilseeds, and cotton in other countries influenced the Indian agriculture systems significantly. The cultivation of millet was discouraged in favour of other crops. Farmers, who used to grow crops for their family’s consumption and cattle feed, had to consider the commercial demands of the market. This led to changes in the type and extent of crops grown. The shift from food crops to non-food crops affected most regions of India due to demand factors.
The company focused on crops such as opium smuggled into China despite Chinese import prohibitions. Indigo was another vital crop, a textile dye needed in the West. The introduction of tea cultivation in Assam allowed Britain to control its supply and not depend on China. None of these crops competed with or replaced any British products, and they were all valuable in terms of their high price per kilogram or cubic metre.
In contrast, millet cultivation declined during the late colonial period as it was replaced by wheat and other cash crops. The increasing demand for wheat, oilseeds, and cotton in other countries influenced this change. Farmers now had to consider the market’s commercial demands when deciding the type and extent of crops grown. This shift from food crops to non-food crops affected most regions of India due to demand factors. Overall, the company focused on cultivating and trading highly priced crops and not competing with British products. The decline in millet cultivation was due to the increasing demand for other crops, such as wheat, oilseeds, and cotton. This change in agricultural practices had significant implications for Indian farmers, who had to adapt to the market’s commercial demands.
After Independence, India and other developing nations adopted the Western development model, abandoning many valuable and meaningful practices, including food habits. Indigenous foods are being forgotten in favour of standardisation, and millets have been dismissed as too primitive to be helpful. As a result, state policies favouring rice and wheat have caused a sharp decline in millet production and consumption. However, Prime Minister Modi has recently shown a deep interest in promoting millet. The Indian government celebrated 2018 as the National Year of Millets to increase the production of nutrient-rich millets and support the agro-industries involved in its production. This initiative has helped promote millet production and consumption in the country, which will aid in fighting hunger and mitigating the effects of climate change in the long run.
As part of this effort, India proposed to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) that 2023 be recognised as the International Year of Millets, and this proposal was approved. Therefore, 2023 will be the International Year of Millets to raise awareness and promote the cultivation, consumption, and trade of these nutritious grains.