Solution lies in increasing irrigation cover on a war-footing and incentivising farmers to produce pulses
At a time when land under irrigation has grown to 50% from 18% in 1950, close to 90% of pulses crops are not covered under irrigation, leaving it to the mercy of rainfall. With deficient rainfall for two years in a row—it was 14% less than the long-period average this year and 12% less last year—the prices of pulses have seen the sharpest spike in a decade. The CPI and WPI inflation of pulses was 46.08% and 58.17%, respectively, in November. A price-spike cycle usually begins with a monsoon shock that hurts domestic production.
The price of any commodity rises when either demand rises or supply falls. In the case of pulses, while demand rose significantly, production fell. Data from National Family Health Survey show that 89% of the population consumes pulses at least once a week, as a source of protein. Consumption spending on pulses rose 12% annually between 2005 and 2012, according to National Sample Survey Organisation data. In real terms, pulses consumption increased by 0.5% while cereal consumption fell 1% between 2005 and 2012. In contrast, production rose from 13.1 million tonnes in 2005 to 18.2 million tonnes in 2011 and thereafter fell to 17.2 million tonnes in 2015. So, with increasing population and rising prices, per capita availability of pulses dropped to 15.3 kg per year in 2013 from 22.1 kg per year in 1951.
Although there has been some policy push to drive the production of pulses in recent years, yields have remained low because of weather shocks and lack of access to latest production technology. The problem is that with every price rise of pulses, the government cracks down on hoarders, augments public distribution system, restricts exports and lines up imports, but fails to pay any heed to the perennial problem of poor irrigation linkage of the crop. The area under irrigation for cereals such as rice and wheat is 60% and 86% of the sown area, respectively. As pulses are a moisture-sensitive crop, which means more water fetches higher yields, efforts to increase irrigation cover on a war-footing and incentivising farmers to move to cultivation of pulses will be a tangible long-term solution. Farmers are not sure of getting stable returns because of high fluctuation in prices, which has led to large-scale substitution of area under pulses cultivation to other high-value crops.
State-wise irrigation of pulses shows major that growing states such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have all neglected irrigation facilities for the crop. Even rich farmers are not better placed as irrigation inadequacy is a problem across all small and big pulses farms. About 88% of all large pulses farms and 90% of marginal ones are unirrigated. Even average size of pulses farms in the country is very small—it is 1 hectare as compared to 178 hectares in Canada, which is one of the large exporters of pulses to India. And yields are less than half of Canada’s.
If the government is serious about increasing the production of pulses quickly, it will have to look at investments in creating irrigation linkage and better post-harvest management rather than resorting to imports every year, which, in effect, keeps the global pulses prices at elevated levels.