Home / Industry / Agriculture /  Sambar with chana dal? The challenges of pulses shortage

New Delhi: Driven by consecutive years of drought and soaring prices, the Indian government this week sent two high-level delegations to arrange for pulses from countries like Mozambique and Myanmar. Though less grave, this is reminiscent of the situation in the mid-1960s when India was pleading the US for wheat shipments under the PL480 programme. That humiliation of a literally ship-to-mouth existence forced a major course correction. The green revolution led by high-yielding wheat varieties made India food-sufficient.

But can India repeat the wheat story, for pulses? The biggest hurdle is that unlike then there is no technological breakthrough in pulses, said Ramesh Chand, agriculture expert and member of the NITI Aayog. And the problems are many: yield of varieties like pigeon pea (arhar) is low, the crop takes nearly six months to mature, and production is fraught with risk as it is a rain-fed crop.

The success story of wheat was based on superior technology followed by incentives like guaranteed procurement from farmers at support prices, Chand said, adding, “Just giving farmers better prices is unlikely to improve supply of pulses. Also, India needs to explore whether genetically modified technology can help."

What complicates the problem further is the peculiarity of Indian diet. For instance, sambar, a staple in south Indian diet, can only be prepared with pigeon peas. The choice of vegetables in sambar can change, but not the variety of dal. Similarly, steamed idlis can only be made with rice and urad dal (black gram). Besan, a flour popular across the country for making fried snacks, can only be made with ground chick peas.

“The low degree of ‘substitutability’ means that we need to make all varieties available in a situation where, overall, we are chronically deficient," Chand said.

Over the past year, pulses’ prices have been a major worry for the Centre. Prices shot up on falling supplies due to consecutive droughts in 2014 and 2015. Production fell from 19.25 million tonnes in 2013-14 to an estimated 17.06 million tonnes in 2015-16, a drop of nearly 11.4%.

Now arhar is retailing at around 150 per kg, while urad prices are inching close to 200 per kg. Currently, India imports nearly a quarter of its domestic demand for pulses. Import of pulses soared from 4.6 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 5.8 million tonnes in 2015-16.

The Centre took several steps. Firstly, it raised the support prices of pulses to encourage farmers to increase production and decided to significantly increase the buffer stock from 1.5 lakh tonnes to 8 lakh tonnes. Secondly, over the past year, it cracked the whip on traders to curb hoarding and floated tenders to import pulses. So far, these measures have failed to keep prices under check.

“The government, instead of working on the ground to improve production, is cracking the whip on importers creating an environment of fear," said S.P. Goenka, a trader and an official with the Indian Pulses and Grains Association (IPGA).

He feels that the existing minimum support prices (MSP) for pulses are lower than wholesale market prices ( 51 per kg MSP for arhar as against the un-milled wholesale price of 90 per kg) and farmers don’t respond to government-determined prices as procurement is abysmally low compared to staples like rice and wheat.

“Pulse growers have repeatedly suffered. In 2013, wholesale prices for chana (chickpea) fell to 2,700 per quintal, while MSP was higher at 3,100 per quintal but the government did not step in to procure at support prices," Goenka said.

He adds that India consumes over 3 million tonnes of pigeon pea and scouting countries in Africa and in Myanmar may not help as put together these countries produce just about half a million tonnes.

Farmer organizations feel that to boost production, the government needs to procure more at higher prices. “The government is importing pulses at over 70 per kg but what is stopping it from offering this price to Indian farmers?" asks Yogendra Yadav, political scientist and co-founder of non-profit Swaraj Abhiyan. (According to IPGA, import price of un-milled arhar is between 95 and 98 per kg.)

Others differ. “Production of pulses respond more to good rains than prices and the Centre should improve access to irrigation," said P.K. Joshi, director, South Asia, at International Food Policy Research Institute.

Only 16% of the area for cultivation of pulses in India has access to irrigation. In comparison, nearly 93% of the area under wheat cultivation and 59% of the area under rice cultivation has irrigation facilities. This shows up in the lower productivity of pulses—6-7 quintals per hectare—which could double with access to irrigation.

When government-mandated support prices are lower, traders collude around these prices and farmers are denied a better market price, Joshi said, adding, “The Centre needs to cut the long value chain from the farmer to consumer to bring down retail prices."

He cited the example of Madhya Pradesh, where farmer producer organizations (FPOs) bridged this gap—from farmers and aggregators in villages to wholesale markets, millers and retailers.

The story is remarkable. FPOs in Madhya Pradesh recently procured nearly 1.6 million tonnes of pulses from farmers in the state. “We purchased arhar at benchmark mandi prices of 89 per kg (substantially higher than the MSP of 51 per kg) and this Kharif season farmers will shift more area into pulses from competing crops like soybean," said Yogesh Dwivedi, head of the confederation of FPOs in the state.

While a good monsoon can ease supplies in the coming months, India clearly needs a mix of strategies to meet rising domestic demand: a breakthrough technology, guaranteed procurement at assured prices, and better irrigation facilities to take the risk out of pulse cultivation.

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