Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

How does India cope with rising pulse prices? By shifting to eggs

A pair of eggs costs less than Rs8 today whereas 100gm of tur dal costs between Rs16 and Rs20

New Delhi: The recent spurt in the prices of pulses is causing much heartburn to governments and consumers. But this is not the first time that prices of pulses have shot up; within the foodgrain basket, production and price shocks are fairly regular for pulses but rare for rice or wheat.

So, how has the Indian consumer responded? Well, by shifting to cheaper sources of protein, like eggs for instance, according to available data.

For instance, in 1961, the per capita availability of pulses in India was a decent 25kg per year. That came down to 15kg per person per year by 2013, as per agriculture ministry data. During this time, the per capita availability of eggs went up from 7 per year to 58 per year.

Consumption data provided by the National Sample Survey Office shows a declining trend in the consumption of pulses—from 11.8kg per person per year in 1987-88 to 8.4kg per person per year in 2009-10. During this time, the consumption of eggs went up from 6 per year to 21 per year in rural India and from 17 to 32 in urban areas.

There is every reason to believe that the trend continues. More so as the poultry sector in India is booming—the production of eggs went up from 30 billion in 1999-2000 to nearly 70 billion in 2012-13, according to agriculture ministry data.

Greater egg production also means they have become cheaper—a pair of eggs costs less than 8 today whereas 100 grams of tur dal (pigeon pea) costs between 16 and 20.

Consumption of protein-rich coarse grains and pulses has decreased significantly as they have become more expensive, said O.P. Singh, a core committee member of Poultry India, an industry body.

People have responded with higher consumption of eggs and chicken, Singh said, adding, “going by the merit of protein, eggs are easily digestible, they are available, affordable and, most importantly, cannot be adulterated. But still there is a paradigm of selectivity based on eating habits and regional biases that we are trying to overcome through campaigns."

According to Singh, in the last two months as pulse prices shot up, sale of eggs went up by 1.7%.

As governments struggle to increase the production of pulses, the poultry sector could well be the solution to India’s hunger problem and the way out for farmers battered by deficit rainfall or untimely showers. In the last decade, the number of poultry farmers have nearly doubled—going from 3 million to 6 million.

India is home to a quarter of the world’s hungry—195 million out of 795 million globally. Moreover, prevalence of protein malnourishment among children under five is high and every second child is stunted, meaning they have low height for their age, according to the National Family Health Survey data (2005-06).

In June, the Right to Food campaign released a map showing a state-wise break-up of eggs served per week to under-six children in government day care centres (anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services).

The numbers are telling: one egg per week in Bihar, one in Kerala, two in Karnataka, two in Odisha, three in Tamil Nadu, three in West Bengal, four in Andhra Pradesh and seven in Telangana.

The rest of India is a blank space on that map. Is that due to the politics of nutrition or actual dietary preferences?

Dipa Sinha, fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies, Delhi, and part of the Right To Food Campaign, said states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh recently started providing milk in anganwadis but that is proving to be a logistical challenge.

“Eggs are important for nutritional security due to the production gap in pulses. More importantly, social groups that are most malnourished, like the scheduled castes and tribes, are non-vegetarians. It is the upper caste Hindus who are imposing a no-egg diet (in anganwadis).

In today’s environment you cannot imagine an ad campaign like ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roj khao ande’ that we grew up with," added Sinha.

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