Food economists say it would be wiser to increase domestic production than go for imports
Dal or chicken? What you prefer on your plate is still your call. With the current rate of increase in pulses price, however, one may just wonder what would go easy on pocket as well. And, another spike in pulse prices is still not ruled out.
It is mainly the skies that spelt a bad year for the rain-fed pulse crop in India. After consistent good production in the past few years on the back of various pulse production schemes introduced by the government, farmers have planted much less pulse crops in view of insufficient rains this year. “Pulses plantings are hurt by inadequate rains in the kharif. An early withdrawal of monsoon is not beneficial for the rabi crop, either,” said N.P. Singh, director of Indian Institute of Pulse Research, Kanpur. Short spells of rains in pulse-growing regions, terminal heat and drought in some crucial regions, like Maharashtra, have affected production.
Experts see more trouble in the rabi season in the pulse-growing regions in central and south India. The well-irrigated plains of north India, however, are in a more comfortable position. “Low minimum support prices had also affected planting decision of farmers. They have avoided the risk of growing pulses and gone for cash crops, like sugarcane,” said Singh.
Farmer organisations said the government's decision to revise minimum support prices of pulses in November had come too late to influence farmers' rabi planting decision. Normally, the announcement is made in early October. “It seems the government was busy with the Bihar elections,” said Prabhakar Kelkar, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Sangh. “By then, 60 per cent of pulse plantings in the country have already finished.” He rued the fact that while farmers received Rs.35 a kilo for their produce, the retail market price touched Rs.240. Though the government has announced a onetime bonus of Rs.75 to farmers over and above the MSP, it may not help much to raise the output.
To keep prices under check, the government raided warehouses and seized around 80,000 tonnes of pulses. It was later sold through Kendriya Bhandar outlets. However, Kelkar feels that there was scope for the government to do more on this. “Why did the government allow prices to climb so high without checking it earlier? Both farmers and consumers have been cheated by hoarders,” he said.
In September, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs had suggested that the government send “strong price signals to farmers to increase acreage and insist for increase in production of pulses”. The recommendation, however, went unnoticed in the rush of other pressing business.
The agriculture ministry’s fourth estimate says pulse production for 2014-15 could be lower than the first three estimates—17.2 million tonnes compared with 19.4 million tonnes in 2012-13. The difference seems marginal, but then consumption of pulses exceeds production. Each year Indians consume about 25 million tonnes of pulses and lentils. The Indian Pulse and Grains Association says demand this year could rise to 25.5 million tonnes.
Another industry body, Assocham, says that owing to increase in demand from millers, the shortfall can only be met by raising imports up to 10.2 million tonnes. This year India has already imported about 7 million tonnes of pulses from Mynamar, Australia, Canada and two African countries. Last year, the import was only 4 million tonnes. “This year, a removal of a customs duty on pulses encouraged imports. The 7 million tonne figure could go up slightly by the end of this fiscal,” said a commerce ministry official.
Food economists say it would be wiser to increase domestic production than go for imports. “We imported about 2.5 million tonnes of chickpeas from Canada and most of it was used for adulteration. Toor dal is just not available anywhere in the world except in India. Masoor is also largely localised in India,” said Satish Chandra, director of Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals. “There is lack of policy support to sustain even 17-18 million tonne pulses in the country. More focus should be given to chickpea production, which was about 9.5 million tonnes till 2012, but is now a mere 5 million tonnes.” The government has asked all Krishi Vigyan Kendras to sell seeds of pulses at a subsidised rate to farmers.
The Maharashtra government has signed indemnity bonds with wholesalers and retailers, forcing them to sell the seized pulses for Rs.80-Rs.100 a kilo. Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are also selling seized pulses through fair price shops.
Delhi has so far seized 81 tonnes of pulses and released eight tonnes for sale through fair price shops. Karnataka, which has seized 25,448 tonnes, has auctioned only 209 tonnes in the open market and is yet to deal with the rest. “States need to play a proactive role in checking prices of essential commodities. It's up to the states to fix stock limits and establish a mechanism for sale of essential items at an affordable rate,” said a food ministry official.
Overall, the pulses production in India seems stagnated. While some NITI Aayog members have advocated genetically modified pulses, Indian agriscientists believe that a solution is at hand. Research on Bt Chana and other transgenic pulses is going on in ICRISAT in Hyderabad and IIPR, Kanpur. “It is not lack of research as much as policy support—including a favourable regulatory environment for new technologies—that is presently missing in pulses,” said N.P. Singh. “The government should factor in the benefits like rejuvenation of soil and ‘fixing’ of 40-70 kg of atmospheric nitrogen per hectare from pulses cultivation.”