Column: Restoring the pulse

Updated: Jan 31 2014, 08:48am hrs
Rising incomes and urbanisation, unfolding globalisation and changing tastes are leading to diversified consumption baskets. There is greater uptake of dairy products, meat, vegetables and fruits among Indian consumers while the converse is true for cereals and pulses. Amidst these, protein consumption has taken a hit while fat intake has been rising. A recent International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) study shows that more than two-thirds of low- and middle-income Indian consumers take less protein than recommended.

Pulses, often considered as the poor mans only source of protein, are particularly important for vegetarians. India is both, the largest producer (25% global share) and consumer (27% global share) of pulses. Almost all pulses are produced and consumed in India since preferences differ across regions. About 90% of the global area under cultivation for pigeon pea and 65% of the same for chick pea are in India with the respective global production shares being 93% and 68%. Yet, the country's production of pulses has been insufficient to meet the rising demand, resulting in persistent increases in imports and prices.

So, what has been salient in Indias pulses story Pulses, until recently, have played second fiddle to cereals, viz. rice and wheat. The rice-wheat centric Green Revolution, in few pockets of north-western India, failed to distribute the benefits evenly across regions and crops. In the two decades following the Green Revolution, there were no technological breakthroughs for cultivation of pulses. Their production declined from over 12.5 million tons in 1960-61 to below 10.5 million tons in 1980-81. Faced with this reality, the government took various corrective measures. However, beyond several ineffectual interventions, an impact seems to bear, only recently, from the recent initiative of National Food Security Mission, Pulses (A3P)2007-08, and the higher minimum support prices (MSP), resulting in a over-19 million tonnes production in 2012-13. The annual production of pulses, that hovered around a narrow range between 11 and 14 million tons in the last three decades, leapfrogged to 18 million tons in 2011-12.

Interestingly, there has been significant regional movement of pulsesfrom waning in the North to the rise of pulses in the South. Along the same lines, pulses faded in eastern India while picking up in western India. Central India (Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) became the hub of pulses. Notwithstanding the very recent increase in production, there has been a consistent demand supply gap in pulses of about 3 to 4 million tons. Not surprisingly, the retail prices of pigeon pea in most major markets went as high as R120/kg in 2010-11.

Studies by IFPRI in 2013 show that improved technologies were slow to spread in traditional pulse areas but achieved a better coverage in most of the non-traditional (for pulses cultivation) locations. Technological improvements in chick pea and pigeon pea cultivation with introduction of early- and medium-duration varieties (to fit the crop cycles of cereals) raised productivity. Going forward, significant boosts in technology for irrigated as well as non-traditional areas need to be provided. Further, the role of the private sector in seed production needs to be explored for pulses, as it has been successfully for some crops such as maize. Relative prices of pulses vis--vis rice and wheat bear significantly on crop choices. Though the pulses' MSPs have gone up in the last three years, the lack of effective procurement has meant that price incentives are rendered ineffective. The government needs to operationalise procurementa demand pull could be provided by including pulses in public distribution system as has been done in Chhattisgarh and Haryana. Finally, trade policy has been lenient with low tariffs as imports have often entered at prices very near to pulses MSP. While it exposes to farmers to international competition, tariff incentives have to be provided carefully to avoid excessive protection leading to gaps in resource allocation.

Since pulses are ecology-friendly (owing to their nitrogen-fixing capacity), they should be promoted to bring down fertiliser needs and therefore, reduce the subsidy burden. Only with a multi-pronged approach, pulses, despite their history of being treated as the cereals' step-siblings, can deliver better. Recent price-policy initiatives and technological innovations show promise, given the record output of pulses in 2013. The momentum needs to be maintained if a persistent rise of pulses is to be achieved.

Roy is a research fellow and Joshi is director, South Asia, at International Food Policy Research Institute

Devesh Roy & P K Joshi