UPA ministers have been sweating over how to check the rise in prices of pulses.
The government plans to put a check on prices by establishing 60,000 “pulses and oil seed villages” in monsoon-fed farming areas. The budget puts aside Rs 300 crore for the villages and soil health initiatives.
The pulses initiative is part of the budget’s four-pronged strategy to “promote inclusive growth” in agriculture.
India is the world’s largest pulses consumer, but relies on foreign imports to meet demand. India produced 4.42 million tonnes of kharif pulses last year—32 per cent less than the target. Imports, mainly from Myanmar and Thailand, made up the gap.
Despite the imports, the price of pulses doubled in 2009. Arhar dal cost Rs 43 when the year began. By June, it had gone up to Rs 90. After the monsoon, Urad dal prices shot up from Rs 50 to Rs 70 from in October.
But there’s no indication that this venture will succeed where previous ones have failed. The pulse problem has been going on for years. Household pulse consumption has plunged from 27 kg to 11 kg per year over the past 40 years, partly because the pulse varieties grown in India are low-yielding and prone to insects.
“No matter how much money you give to pulses, the returns to farmers will not be high,” said R.P. Singh, Director-in-charge of the Bhopal-based Directorate of Pulses, the body that administers the government’s pulses initiatives. “So, farmers would rather plant rice or wheat.”
The government has spent more than Rs 5,000 crore over the past two decades to promote pulse farming, much of it through the Integrated Scheme of Oilseeds, Pulses, Oil Palm and Maize (ISOPOM) program.
But ISOPOM has had limited success. Many of the funds marked for pulses have gone unspent. Prominent agriculturalist M.S. Swaminathan recently criticised the program for failing to achieve its goals.
The government has also given out funding for the development of bio-engineered pulses, which could have higher yields. In late 2009, a team of scientists at CCS Haryana Agricultural University claimed to have developed an insect-resistant variety of chickpea. But with bt brinjal caught in a political crossfire, it’s unlikely that bt pulses will be cleared for commercial cultivation anytime soon.