Chlorophile: Priced out of the plate?

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Published: September 8, 2015 12:23 AM

The boom-bust cycle that afflicts pigeon pea needs to be evened out for stable prices

At Nayabazar, Delhi’s wholesale market for pulses, we get a variety of views on the cause and consequences of the spurt in prices of pigeon pea, or arhar, the second-most consumed dal in the country, after chickpea or chana, whose uses vary with changes in form.

One trader pleads the cause of the aam aadmi. The dal has disappeared from katoris or bowls used for accompaniments at meals, he says. Another holds retailers responsible. While wholesale margins do not exceed 1%, retailers in nearby Kharibaoli jack up rates by more than 30%. The government’s focus on industry and neglect of agriculture also comes in for criticism. The cap on stocking limits leads to volatility, says another. He trades about 60 tonnes a day but cannot hold more than 200 tonnes at any time. A retired teacher copes by serving dal as thin as attendance in government schools. A young homemaker says ‘plus minus karna padta hai.’ The math lets her kids have dal at any one meal not both.

Like images from a line-printer, a picture emerges.

Pigeon pea prices have touched highs never seen before. Erratic weather is the proximate reason. On August 22, last year, it rained in torrents in the Kanpur Dehat area where long-duration pigeon pea (of 280-300 days) is traditionally grown. It laid crops flat. After that there was no rain. A farmer like Udai Bir Singh, who has been trained in the agronomy by the nearby Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR), got just one quintal a hectare against 25 quintals he expected. When a year-long crop like pigeon pea fails, ‘kisan toot jata hai,’ he rues.

Area under pigeon pea has remained flat for the past 25 years. In north-west India, it has fallen victim to the rice-wheat (and mungbean) cropping system. In the Kanpur Dehat area, farmers are withdrawing from long-duration pigeon pea and growing two or more crops as a hedging strategy.

Medium- and short-duration pigeon pea varieties have been developed but are not very productive. Yields have remained flat at about 700 kg a hectare for the past 40 years. Icrisat has produced a hybrid, a first for a pulses crop. C L Lakshmipati Gowda, who retired in January as deputy director-general of the Hyderabad-based institute which researches crops for the semi-arid regions and the tropics, says it can give 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes a hectare. He blames a shortage of seeds for the hybrids not taking off and wants the private sector to be roped in. But scientists like S M Mannur, of the pulses research station in Kalaburagi (Gulbarga), says ‘the production technology is not defined,’ that is, the set of practices farmers must follow to obtain the target yields, have not been spelt out.

Lured by this year’s high prices, farmers in Kalaburagi had rushed to sow pigeon pea. The institute had run out of seed and there would have been ‘havoc’ says Mannur, if rains had not vanished for about a month, delaying sowing operations. ‘Prices will fall,’ during the next harvest, he predicts.

It is a boom-bust cycle that should be evened out for the stability of both prices and farmers’ incomes.

Despite high prices, small holders do not gain, says Sharad Tenglikar, a professor of community medicine at a Kalaburagi college and himself a farmer, who grows pulses and other crops on about 60 acres of own and leased land. Small-holders are forced to sell at harvest time when prices are low to redeem loans taken from commission agents. It is rich farmers and traders who rake it in, he says. ‘Yes, hoarding definitely is there,’ he says. ‘There are 250 to 300 mills in Gulbarga and they hold it back.’

Even if smallholders wished to sell during the lean season , hey cannot because storages are lacking. Whole pulses with seed coats on do not keep for long as bruchids are attracted to them. Processed dals have a longer shelf life. Mannur proposes ‘pulses parks’ in production hubs like Kalaburagi and Kanpur with processing facilities and giant silos, which government could use for open market operations to stabilise prices—and production.

N P Singh, director of Kanpur’s IIPR blames government policies. Minimum support prices are announced but there is little procurement as dals are not sold through ration shops except in states like Tamil Nadu. The import of yellow pea from Canada has disrupted the pigeon pea economy. For Canadian farmers, yellow pea is a bonus crop they grow when paid by the government to keep wheat fields fallow (to shore up international prices). ‘We are trying to introduce pigeon pea into the cropping system of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh as a replacement for rice,’ he says, but productivity will have to be improved.

Pigeon pea production can increase by about 30% if GM technologies such as Bt technolofy are used; this has demonstrated great effect in cotton, against bollworms, and can be deployed against pod-borers, says Gowda. But opposition from the anti-GM movment is preventing the use of this technology, though research continues at Icrisat, IIPR and elsewhere.

Another affliction is fusarium wilt. When pigonpea was planted with jowar, the latter acted as a barrier. Its root secretions would kill the wilt. ‘We have lost the cropping balance,’ says Singh.

Balance needs to be restored in policy as well. The government is sensitive to prices and has worked to augment supply. But if pigeon pea growers do not get a greater share of retail value, they are unlikely to remain doves.

The author hosts a weekly TV programme on agriculture and is consulting editor,

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