Low pulse

Spiralling prices of pulses have shown India’s dependence on imports. Pulses are integral to  India’s diet but not its food policy. As a result, supply cannot meet demand. What are the consequences and  solutions?

by Savvy Soumya Mishra

Surendra Nath has switched to eating grass-pea, though he knows it is not good for health. But so is tobacco, he argues. He cannot do without pulses and pigeon-pea selling at Rs 100 a kg is beyond his means. “My wife insists on cooking pulses at least once a day, so we have switched to khesari (grass-pea), the cheapest available dal, that too at Rs 60 a kg,” he said.

Nath belongs to Bihar, where pulses, especially pigeon-pea (known as tur or arhar in India), form an integral part of the diet. Only cattle and the poorest of the poor would eat grass-pea since it can cause neurological disorders like paralysis and stunted growth on regular consumption over a long period. In several villages in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh people now keep pigeon-pea for special occasions; peas and potatoes are the new staple.

Pulses were displaced from their prime position in many an Indian platter when their prices doubled a year ago. Pigeon pea, which cost Rs 50 a kg earlier, was for Rs 120. Greengram saw a similar price rise and most other pulses were above Rs 70 a kg.

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar blamed the jump in pulse prices on flagging imports, low production and increased purchasing power of the Indian consumer. The reduction in global production and high international prices slowed down the import of pulses in the past two years.

In 2007-08, India imported 2.85 million tonnes of pulses and next year, 2.32 million tonnes. Since India is the biggest consumer of pulses, demand within the country influences international prices. Some pulse-exporting countries factor Indian demand in their production. India is also the biggest producer of pulses.

So when the Indian government announces imports it immediately spikes prices in the world market because it indicates to the world market that there is an acute shortage of pulses in the country, pointed out Bhaskar Goswami, food policy analyst with the Forum for Food and Biotechnology in Delhi.

“We have become major importers of pulses and this has made us dependent on the prices dictated by the markets of Myanmar, our most important exporter,” said Rajesh Gupta, pulses importer and former vice-president of the Delhi Grain Merchant Association. Myanmar, Tanzania, Mozambique, Canada, USA and Australia are the major exporters of pulses to India.

The retail prices have started reducing, with domestic supply picking up and pigeon-pea imports from Myanmar. But the recent pulse crisis exposed a deeper malaise of India’s food policy. Over decades governments have neglected pulse production in the country. It has remained stagnant at 12-14 million tonnes in the past two decades and India is short of supply by two-three million tonnes annually.

Pulses have not been promoted the way wheat and rice are, though they are equally important for the Indian diet. Nor has the government given as much attention to research and technological interventions in pulses as in the case of cash crops.

With the development of the seed-fertilizer-irrigation technologies for paddy, wheat and maize, fertile lands were diverted to these crops and pulses were relegated to marginal pieces of land cultivated by marginal farmers. In Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district farmers were growing pulses till 15 years ago. “As soon as irrigation was provided through Tawa Dam, pulses and millets like kodo and kutki got replaced by soybean,” said Sachin Jain, a member of Vikas Samvad, a civil society group in Bhopal.

In the past 30-35 years core pulse areas have shifted from northern states to central and southern India. “North India had the right climatic conditions for pulses but as irrigation improved, pulses were replaced with wheat, paddy and sugarcane. The pulse area gained in central and southern India was dry and rainfed land,” said N Nadarajan, director of IIPR. “This affected the yield.”

In India most research on pulses is by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and the International Crops Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), which is breeding pigeon-pea and chick-pea. Scientists agree that very little biodiversity exists in case of pulses to develop desirable characteristics like high yield and resistance to pests. But even with available varieties and technologies, Nadarajan believes, pulse production can be increased by at least 30 per cent. “There is definitely scope for improvement in research, but even the available technology is not reaching the farmers,” he said.

Nadarajan explained that only 10 per cent of pulse growers use certified seeds. Research institutes provide breeder seeds and agencies like the National Seeds Corporation distribute them as certified seeds after a few cycles. Nearly 400 improved varieties of pulses have been released for cultivation since the inception of the coordinated pulse improvement programme in 1967, but only 124 varieties are in the production chain and only a dozen are popular among farmers, said Reddy.

That’s partly because the gap in yields between research stations and on-farm demonstrations and between on-farm demonstrations and farmers’ yields is significant.

Private seed companies have also kept away from pulses because developing and distributing seeds are not economical. Except pigeon-pea, pulses do not have hybrids. Since pulses are pushed to marginal farms, catering to farmers scattered over large areas involves greater logistic cost, said Reddy. So seed production is restricted to public-sector research organizations.

Small wonder the yield of pulses has remained nearly stagnant in the past 40 years at 600 kg/ha, while the yield of crops like rice, wheat and maize has increased to between 2,000 kg/ha and 3,500 kg/ha, Reddy said.

Fluctuation in yields is also high because pulses are especially susceptible to pests and diseases and are grown in rainfed areas. Pulses are rich in protein, so pests love them. So do Neelgais. Besides they are slow crops because they need a lot of heat energy to break down the protein molecules required for growth. Pulses are also extremely sensitive to heat and cold.

The disadvantages and risks involved in growing pulses are not compensated by the MSP. For pulses (pigeon-pea) the MSP of Rs 2,300 per 100 kg is higher than the MSP of Rs 1,080 per 100 kg for paddy. But while paddy yields about 3,000 kg per ha, pulses have a national average yield of 600 kg per ha. Even when market prices of pigeon-pea were ruling above Rs 100 per kg, the MSP was Rs 23 per kg.

With so little attention from scientists and policy makers, pulses remain unattractive to farmers. The widening gap between production and demand is reflected in the decrease in per capita consumption of pulses. Between 1972-73 and 2004-05 pulses consumption in rural areas reduced from 4.3 per cent of the food intake to 3.1 per cent; in urban areas it slipped from 3.4 per cent to 2.1 per cent, according to a Planning Commission report. The rural protein consumption came down by over 8 per cent during the same period, while urban consumption remained the same.

The Indian Council of Medical Research recommends 65 g of pulses for an adult every day. “That level was never met. People were actually consuming 40 g per day, and this has now reduced to 30 g per day due to high prices,” nutritionist Veena Shatrugna said.

The impact is beginning to show in some of the most backward areas. In Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district 70 children belonging to the Korku tribe died of malnutrition in 2008. Similar deaths occurred in Jhabua and Sidhi districts in end-2009. A study by a civil society organization showed the Korkus had stopped taking mainstream pulses—pigeon-pea, green gram, red lentil and black gram—for almost a year.

About 78 per cent Korku children are undernourished. “They have replaced main pulses with batla dal or dried peas, which is a vegetable. That too is available at Rs 40 a kg,” said Sachin Jain a member of Vikas Samvad. The Korkus are marginal farmers who grow pulses for their own consumption. This year because of higher prices they sold their pulses at Rs 20-25 a kg to buy cheaper food.

The National Food Security Mission launched in 2008 aims at increasing the production of rice, wheat and pulses. It targets increasing the production of pulses by two million tonnes by 2012. Area under pulse cultivation (24 million ha at present) will be increased by 4.05 million ha.

The government proposes using rice fallows and intercropping with wider spaced crops. It has roped in ICRISAT along with agriculture universities in Raipur and Jabalpur for working with farmers. “We have 3,000 farmers working with us in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The trial cultivations are done on the fields of small and marginal farmers. We are training farmers in using seed varieties and cultivation pattern so that next year they can train more farmers,” said Suresh Pande, principal scientist at ICRISAT.

Rainfed rice fallows are the best option, said Pande. The rainfed area under paddy cultivation is 10.65 million hectares. This land remains fallow after harvest and can be used for growing pulses, grain legumes and food legumes. “Since paddy grows in stagnant water, the soil is rich in moisture. Even if the moisture content is less the legumes being drought-resistant and deep-rooted can take in the required moisture from the soil,” he added.

Growing paddy is not very profitable in parts of Jharkhand, so Pande suggests replacing paddy with pigeon-pea or double cropping with short-duration pulses. Scientists at ICRISAT suggest intercropping without replacing main cereals in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. By rotating paddy with pigeon-pea and wheat with chick-pea the farmers can replenish the soil.

To make pulses profitable, the cost should be brought down by developing short-duration and pest-resistant varieties, agriculture scientist M S Swaminathan said. Research is on to improve pulses varieties. ICRISAT has developed hybrid pigeon-pea (ICPH 8 is more popular) that will increase yield. Agricultural research institutes claim they are in a position to release hybrids of major pulse crops within three years. Reddy said IIPR scientists are also trying to develop Bt chick-pea resistant to pod borer.

The cost can also be brought down by eliminating middlemen in distribution of certified seeds. The seed villages initiative by Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapeeth has made farmers self-sufficient in pulse seeds in Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.

A similar initiative by M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has set up pulses villages in Ramanathapuram and Pudukottai, the drier districts of Tamil Nadu. Farmer families in these villages are growing pulses on 160 ha. The mandate of the foundation was to ensure the people harvest water in community farm ponds and irrigate the pulses field the moment they show moisture stress.

Field experiments show integrated pest management and integrated nutrient management techniques will stabilize yields at levels 20 per cent to 60 per cent higher than normal.

Agriculture scientists say farmers can use certain properties of pulses—they fix nitrogen and consume less water—to improve soil health. It is estimated that chick-pea can fix (convert atmospheric nitrogen to organic nitrogen) up to 140 kg nitrogen per hectare in the growing period. Long-duration pigeon-pea in northern India, grown over a 40-week period, can fix up to 200 kg nitrogen per hectare. “A leguminous plant is very rich in nitrogen, so while the root fixes nitrogen in the soil, the other parts, when they decompose, further improve the nitrogen content as well as the organic carbon content in the soil,” A Subba Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Soil Sciences in Bhopal, said.
CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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