Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The skewed pulses story


Suman Sahai


Many years ago, when I was doing my Ph.D. in genetics at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi, I did my research on mung and urad daal, unlike most of my compatriots who did their research either on wheat, rice and maize, or on vegetables. Pulses was a neglected field of research then, as it is now. It was a crop of the marginal areas then and it continues to be so even today. This is baffling for a country where most people eat some form of daal every day.

We have, for decades, been importing large quantities of pulses to satisfy our daal requirements. In this way, we have boosted the agriculture of all those countries from where we have imported pulses and have helped to shore up the incomes of their farmers while neglecting our own. What sense does this make?

The story of pulse imports unfolds every year. As I write, 5,000 tonnes of pulses have already been imported from Australia, Myanmar and Tanzania and a sum of Rs 2,600 crore has gone from India to these countries. Another 2,000 tonnes of pulses have been ordered and the government has decided to import yet another 3,000 tonnes of daal out of which 2,000 is arhar or pigeon pea and the remaining 1,000 is urad. Since there is a dearth of pulses in the international market, the prices are high. Australia has been a regular supplier of daal and we also import from Tanzania and Myanmar.

Tired of waiting for policy support and incentives of the kind that the elite rice and wheat crops receive, farmers have practically stopped cultivating this protein-rich, nutritious crop. Instead of spending money towards incentivising cultivation of pulses, and other legumes, governments have chosen the approach of importing pulses from abroad.

Even more bizarre decisions have been taken. Instead of promoting home-grown daal, agriculture ministers like Balram Jakhar and Sharad Pawar, lobbied for contract farming of pulses in Africa, Latin America and Myanmar. The plan was to buy back the pulses produced by the farmers from these regions.

At the same time, we will push down the potential of our own farmers and keep wasting scarce forex. A perpetual scarcity coupled with unscrupulous hoarders keeps daal prices high in domestic markets. With daal prices hovering over Rs 100 per kg and reaching as high as Rs 180 to Rs 200 per kg, this daily staple of Indian diet has been out of the middle classes’ reach for several years.  

Pulses have traditionally been cultivated by resource-poor farmers in rain-fed regions and, that too, in marginal areas. It is ironic that such a high-value crop — both from the point of view of nutrition as well as value — should be given such low priority in government policy. It is clear that in order to change the situation, there will have to be major investments in research on a range of legume crops and not just a few easy ones like the chickpea variety.

Pulses demonstrate a great diversity in both production and consumer preferences. Hence, there is regional specialisation in pulse production. So, the boosting of production must happen for all varieties of pulses. Unfortunately, however, research in pulses continues to be ignored with very poor funding. It is not surprising, therefore, that there have been no breakthroughs in pulse production. It’s quite shocking that on the pulses front, things have not really changed much from the time that I was a student.

Even the new genie of agricultural research, the biotechnology boom that guzzles funds, has carefully stayed away from doing anything for this crop. Despite all its rhetoric about solving India’s problems of hunger Agbiotech remains miles away from pulses, confining itself to crops that have already demonstrated remarkable performance with conventional breeding and don’t need any exotic input like Bt genes.

Solving our daal scarcity is no rocket science. We need to support our farmers in resource-starved belts and give them research breakthroughs coupled with the subsidies provided to prosperous farmers of India’s wheat and rice belts. This will incentivise farmers to become significant producers of pulses and there will be enough daal in the country at affordable prices. Then we can preserve our foreign exchange instead of spending it on imports from Australia, Myanmar and Tanzania.

The writer is a scientist who heads Gene Campaign, a research and advocacy organisation.
She can be reached at mail@genecampaign.org and www.genecampaign.org

Deccan Chronicle | Suman Sahai | November 02, 2015

 

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