Racing pulses: Why aren’t dal prices dropping? | Mint

Racing pulses: Why aren’t dal prices dropping?

Consumers in India use a whole variety of pulses, including tur (pigeon pea), masoor (lentils), chana (gram), urad (black gram), and moong (green gram) as a staple. (Reuters)
Consumers in India use a whole variety of pulses, including tur (pigeon pea), masoor (lentils), chana (gram), urad (black gram), and moong (green gram) as a staple. (Reuters)

Summary

  • After vegetables and cereals, it’s the turn of pulses now. But unlike other food crops, taming pulse prices is harder

After vegetables and cereals, it’s the turn of pulses now. Prices of commonly used dals are soaring. But unlike other food crops, taming pulse prices is harder, as India is both the largest producer and consumer. Mint explains the background and lists the options:

How have retail prices moved?

Consumers in India use a whole variety of pulses, including tur (pigeon pea), masoor (lentils), chana (gram), urad (black gram), and moong (green gram) as a staple. The most recent data from the consumer affairs department shows that except for lentils, the year-on-year price rise in other varieties ranges from 19% for gram to 41% for tur. In some major cities the price rise is more pronounced. For instance, retail tur prices in Delhi have shot up by about 50% to 173 per kg now compared with 118 last year. The price rise is worrying as pulses are an important source of protein for many families.

Why are prices rising sharply?

Data from the agriculture ministry shows that the area under rain-fed kharif pulses this year was 11.5% less than the five-year average. This means production is likely to drop to 7.12 million tonnes as per the first advance estimates released late last month, compared with 8.16 million tonnes last year, and the previous best of 9.6 million tonnes in 2016-17. Production was also impacted by below-normal rains in major growing states such as Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Worryingly, planting of winter grown pulses is also lagging year-on-year—by as much as 12% for gram—as of 24 November.

Why aren’t farmers growing more pulses?

Pulses are mostly grown on marginal land, with little or no access to irrigation. Some varieties like tur are low-yielding, long duration crops. As access to irrigation improved, farmers switched to high-yielding cereals that come with guaranteed price support. An open import policy which kept prices low in the past also led to farmers losing interest.

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Can retail prices be tamed via imports?

Unlike in oilseeds, where India meets its domestic shortfall with imports of cheap palm oil, global supplies of pulses are limited. With an annual production of 27-28 million tonnes, India is the largest producer. It meets some of the supply gap through imports from Australia, Canada, Mozambique, Malawi, and Myanmar. But usually, the import volumes are less than 3 million tonnes annually. To boost domestic supplies, India is now reportedly exploring production opportunities in countries such as Brazil, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.

What can we do to boost production?

A peculiarity of Indian diets is that one pulse variety cannot be replaced by another, leading to inelastic demand. Tur used in South Indian kitchens to make sambar cannot be replaced by moong or lentils. That means India must boost production of all varieties (other than gram where it is self-sufficient). Faced with high prices, the Centre is considering a new scheme to boost production—purchase assurance at a guaranteed price. Beyond this, India will need a technological breakthrough to improve yields.

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