The Central Statistical Organisation estimate of overall GDP being likely to grow at 7.2 per cent this year has brought back the confidence of the industry and policymakers that the economy has truly turned the corner. But the growth of the farm sector is almost flat (-0.2 per cent), though this too is a pleasant surprise given that it was exposed to the worst drought since 1972. The real worry is still the very high rate of food inflation (above 17 per cent). The prime minister, in his recent address at the conference of chief ministers and state ministers of food and civil supplies, reiterated his concerns. He highlighted the need to boost agricultural productivity, especially pulses through a proposed Mission on Pulses (we already have one on oilseeds and pulses). Not sure whether the PM is aware of that and what the mission has done so far, it was encouraging to hear him emphasise the need to strengthen the role of organised retail by modernising and compressing the value chain, and also address the issue of heavy taxation of agricultural commodities. The latter being evoked by the increasing price spread between retail and farmgate.
Why is the PM so worried about pulses? Dal-roti is the aam admi’s staple and he knows well enough that dal is surely going out of the reach of the common man, which does not augur well for his government. Given the mass poverty, this country is still very sensitive to food prices, and has seen in the past (late 1990s) how governments had to pay heavily with just onion prices being on fire. And today, pulses are really on fire. The monthly wholesale price index for pulses increased by more than 40 per cent in December 2009 over December 2008 and has been worse for tur at 69.6 per cent; urad at 63.7 per cent; and moong at 64.3 per cent. Looking at the percentage changes in 2009 over 2006, the increase is more than 100 per cent in the case of pulses in general and tur in particular, triggering a wide spread consumer dissatisfaction.
While much of these trends can be explained by supply side factors (eg., tur production dropped by more than 25 per cent in 2008-09 over 2007-08, and has not yet recovered fully, yields of most of the kharif pulses (tur, moong, urad) have been stagnating for more than a decade, triggering a question on what our scientists and those in international agencies such as International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas and International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are doing about it, and what the Technology Mission on Oilseeds and Pulses has delivered since the 1990s? The success of the green revolution is largely attributed to the effective partnership among the government and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research institutes from where the high-yielding variety seeds had come. A similar course of action is deemed essential to bring about a breakthrough in production of pulses.
The global markets for these kharif pulses are very thin, as India is the largest producer and consumer of these. Myanmar, Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, etc. can supply a bit, but can they quench the increasing appetite of Indians for these preferred varieties? Do we need to work out long-term arrangements with them by investing in these countries, or should we ramp up investments at home to increase productivity and create an enabling policy environment?
These are the questions that the PM perhaps needs to pose to the proposed Mission on Pulses.
Chickpea, on the other hand, which is a rabi crop, has been doing fine in relative terms. It comprises roughly
45-50 per cent of our total pulses production. Over the years, its centre of gravity has shifted from the North-west (having lost to wheat) to the South. Its global market is also relatively large, and Australia, Myanmar, Turkey and many others can provide us more if we demand.
The scope for land expansion is quite limited in India, and there could be efforts to tie up with the major sources of pulses imports through South-South or North-South co-operations. But lately, it is yellow peas from Canada which have entered India in a big way, and which are blended with split chickpeas and in a great deal with besan (chickpea flour) without telling the consumer. As palm oil is blended to keep the prices of edible oils in check, so are yellow peas being used in pulses, as the wholesale price of imported yellow peas hovers between Rs 12 and 15 per kg.
But this is also the time to innovate in product development and one of such innovations will be in the form of reconstituted soya dal, which comprises 50 per cent soya flour, 25 per cent wheat flour and 25 per cent rice or any other flour depending upon regional tastes.
The price of such a dal will be between Rs 25 and 30 per kg, which the government can sell through its public distribution system, Kendriya Bhandars and Mother Dairy outlets. This reconstituted soya dal is more nutritious than tur, though not as tasty. But food technology can easily improve the taste with flavours, and the soya revolution in the country (we produce about 9-10 million tonnes of soya in the country, and soya has about 40 per cent protein compared to 20-25 per cent in pulses), can be used to release the brakes on pulses, and improve the protein intake in the country at a very low cost. It is not a difficult situation, but what is needed is a vision to provide proteins to the poor, and a mission to innovate. Will public policy come forward to support this?
Ashok Gulati and Kavery Ganguly are with the International Food Policy Research Institute, New Delhi.
The views expressed by the authors are personal.