At a time when prices of pulses have hit the stratosphere, depriving the common man of his favourite source of protein, farmers in five villages of Pudukottai district in southern Tamil Nadu have sown the seeds of what could be the solution—produce more.
The experiment, launched by agricultural scientist and Father of 60s’ Green Revolution, MS Swaminathan, has shown encouraging results.
In the first attempt, the five villages produced 745 kg per hectare, close to the national average of 781 kg.
For Swaminathan, this could be beginning of a revolution.
“I hope 2016 marks the beginning of a pulses revolution,” the scientist told HT.
RS Shanthakumar, director, eco-technology centre, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), is also on the same page, saying it is a project that can be replicated elsewhere and scaled up.
All these began on April 22, 2013, when farmers gathered at a pulses panchayat held by Swaminathan and his team at Edaiyampatti village in Illuppur taluk, and pledged to grow pulses.
They were grouped in 71 teams and trained in seed selection, use of technology and implements and application of bio-fertilizers and enriched manure.
For 43-year-old Lakshmi of Kathavampatti village, who took up black gram cultivation in three-fourths of an acre, the 300 kg-yield and net income of Rs 21,400 was simply unbelievable.
“Swaminathan sir is like a God to us. My income has doubled and we have more money to spend, thanks to him,” she beamed.
Fifty years ago, Swaminathan and other scientists had introduced India to the Green Revolution, bringing in high-yielding seeds, technological implements and machinery and scientific methods for pest control and soil management. With government’s support in land reforms, easy credit and procurement, the country became a surplus producer of rice and wheat.
But the neglect of pulses has proved costly, forcing the government to import, and making the once-economic source of protein out of reach for the common man.
A kilogramme of moong dal costs Rs 160-180, while urad dal is around Rs 200 and tur dal Rs 180-200, all of which have doubled since 2014.
“Each time we go to the market, the shopkeeper raises the prices by Rs 10 per kg,” laments Premalata Srinivasan, a resident of Mylapore in Chennai.
“It is hard to understand, whether it is an actual or artificial shortage that the shopkeepers are taking advantage of,” she said, an apprehension shared by many across the country.
Historically, India has been the largest producer, consumer and importer of pulses, accounting for 33% of the world’s cultivated area, 22% of the production and 27% of consumption of pulses.
In 2012, 18.34 million tonnes of pulses were produced from a total area of 23.47 million hectares with the average productivity per hectare at 781 kg, falling short of the estimated demands by about 3-4 million tonnes.
The pod-bearing plants are cultivated in rain-fed areas and are severely affected by the vagaries of monsoon. Higher input cost, in terms of seeds, fertilisers and labour, affects the return on investment. Lack of incentives from the government also has forced farmers across the country to stick to rice and wheat.
For Swaminathan, “the crisis was an opportunity to overcome the problem which led to the crisis”.
When he and his team came to Pudukottai three years ago, it was the driest district in Tamil Nadu.
The setting up of Illuppur Agriculture Producer Company Limited (IAPCL) ensured that agriculture became profitable again and ensured that the farmers got the benefits.
IAPCL, registered in 2015, markets and sells all the produce from the villages directly to retailers in various cities of Tamil Nadu under the brand: Edaimpatti and Patikaadu.
Though the CEO is senior scientist K Thachinamurthy of MSSRF, he only executes the plans. Decisions are taken at the meeting of board of directors—all of who are farmers—held on the 7th of every month.
Major decisions taken at the meeting and financial statement of the previous month are circulated to all the producer groups, promoting transparency and accountability and boosting confidence of farmers.
With 70 % shareholders being women, the company and the programme also have accorded greater importance and representation to women.
The company has now expanded beyond pulses and has a product mix of organic vegetables, integrated dairy and poultry.
For R Subbaiah, another prosperous pulses farmer in Illuppur, the 482-kg black gram yield per acre in his farm almost doubled his average returns to Rs 27,306 per acre.
“I am glad I listened to Swaminathan sir. Today many people from other villages want to imitate us,” he said.