New Delhi: A bumper crop should ordinarily mean good news but a record harvest of pulses in India last year has led to a problem of plenty. So much so that India seems unable to keep a commitment it made to Mozambique last year to import pigeon peas—a popular pulse variety locally known as arhar—prompting a visit by Mozambican officials to New Delhi to seek clarity on the matter.
The MoU or pact signed with Mozambique to buy arhar grown there was seen as the centrepiece of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the East African country in last July. It followed consecutive years of drought in India with production dipping to 16 million tonnes in 2015-16, the lowest in six years.
But with farm gate prices of pulses crashing in India—following a record crop of 23 million tonnes in 2016-17 and a surge in imports at 6.6 million tonnes—the import of 125,000 tonnes of pigeon peas from Mozambique in 2017-18 seems a commitment New Delhi cannot keep. And it is a development that could seriously mar India’s reputation on the resource rich continent where India has been trying to boost its presence economically, politically as well as strategically in the face of China’s growing footprint.
A directorate general of foreign trade notification dated 5 August says the restriction on imports does not apply to the Indian government’s import commitments “under any bilateral/regional agreement/MoU."
But news reports from Mozambique says India has imposed quotas on pigeon pea imports, listing it under the “restricted" category of imports from the “free" with a stricture saying that only 200,000 tonnes of pigeon peas can be imported in any one fiscal year. India has so far imported 30,000 tonnes out of its committed 125,000 tonnes for 2017-18, a report in the Club of Mozambique news website said. According to the text of the MoU, available on the website of India’s consumer affairs ministry, India has committed to buy 125,000 tonnes of pigeon peas in 2017-18.
Two Indian government officials confirmed that officials from Mozambique were in New Delhi last week to discuss the subject of exports of pulses under the terms of the MoU. Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said Mozambican officials from the Instituto de Cereais de Mozambique had met ministry of consumer affairs officials on Thursday.
There was no confirmation of any breakthrough in Thursday’s meeting. But a commerce ministry official speaking under condition of anonymity said India was keeping an eye on the pulses production in Mozambique, season for which started in October. “India stands by its five-year commitment to buy pulses from Mozambique. It may happen that we will buy less than 1.25 lakh tonne this year and compensate it by buying more next year," he added.
The Indian high commission in Mozambique and the Mozambican high commission in New Delhi were unavailable for comments.
Analysts say any reluctance on India’s part to keep to its agreement could cost it precious goodwill that it has been trying to shore up in Africa for some years now.
India’s inability to honour its pact with Mozambique “is a very unfortunate development," said Biswajit Dhar, a professor of economics and trade at the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University. “India was sold as a promising market last year but now access has been withdrawn given that our pulses production is good. This sends out a very negative signal to our African partners about India," Dhar said. “Given that pulse production is irregular—sometimes high and sometimes low—we should not have signed an MoU that binds us to buying a certain amount every year. If you take the initiative and suddenly pull out, you are not seen as a reliable partner," he said.
Once a major influence on the continent in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to its support for freedom movements in African countries, India saw its clout wane in the decades since—with countries like Japan and China making inroads into the continent with aid packages and infrastructure projects. New Delhi has been trying to refashion its ties with Africa with its India-Africa Summit outreach efforts with the first such event being held in New Delhi in 2008. This initiative was followed by two more such summits—in Addis Ababa (2011) and in New Delhi (2015). In the last three years, there have been 16 visits to Africa by the Indian President, vice-president and the Prime Minister—a calculated move to keep up engagement with Africa given that the next India-Africa Summit is scheduled in 2020.
Africa is seen as important for India for several reasons. It forms the western boundary of the Indian Ocean through though which a major chunk of India’s energy supplies as well as trade passes. “With GDP growth in Africa going up, it is a market for goods and services from India," said Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary. “With India looking for a larger say in international issues especially at the UN, Africa is important as India looks for support at the UN Security Council," Mansingh said.
Asit Ranjan Mishra contributed to this story.