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Government pricing policy has made pulses a losing crop for farmers, thus creating a sustained mismatch in production and demand, reports Kamayani Singh. See graphics

india Updated: Nov 16, 2009 02:24 IST
Kamayani Singh

Last year, Rakesh Kumar Rathi reluctantly switched to tur (pigeon pea) to keep the fertility of his farm intact.

The 35-year-old farmer from Pipariya in Madhya Pradesh — 150 km southeast of Bhopal — would have gone back to soyabean this year, but the sharp spike in prices of pulses has encouraged him grow tur again.

“Tur didn’t fetch prices as attractive as rice, wheat or even soyabean does,” Rathi said, explaining his reluctance to grow pulses. “Farmers switch crops depending on returns in the market,” he said.

Rathi could be right.

Experts say that an increase in the area under pulses — to 3.4 million hectares this year from 3.34 million hectares last year — could ease prices when the new tur crop enters the market in January. However, there is no guarantee that prices won’t see sharp increases in future.

Due to floods in some parts of the country and lack of adequate rain in some others, the Planning Commission has projected a decline of 13 per cent in kharif (summer) agricultural production in the country. This is alarming because the rise in food prices is already in the region of 12-13 per cent, going up for over a year.

Rising incomes have made pulses a part of staple diet of more Indians than before, thus pushing up demand for a commodity that has been in short supply for decades.

The government’s pricing policy, which has made rice, wheat and crops such as soyabean more remunerative for the farmer, and no focus on developing high-yield varieties (HYV) of pulses are responsible for the stagnant production.

According to government data released last week, the wholesale price of pulses increased 21.2 per cent over the past year. But the figure masks the real impact on consumers, who have had to pay at least 50 per cent more for pulses at retail outlets

“I was paying Rs 60 a kg for tur at the beginning of the year,” said Seema Dikshit, a 45-year-old homemaker in Gurgaon. “It’s our favourite dal, so we can’t do without it.”

Between 1991-92 and 2007-08, the production of pulses in India increased marginally from 12 million tonnes to 14 million tonnes. India’s average annual consumption is more than 18 million tonnes and it has increased by almost 2 million tonnes in the last three years alone.

Last year India imported around 3 million tonnes of pulses. In the coming years the country is likely to import more if the production doesn’t increase.

In Pipariya, 30 per cent of the farmers have switched from pulses to rice in the past four years, citing better pricing for rice.

“Government pricing for pulses needs to improve,” said Ashok Gulati, director (Asia), International Food Policy Research Institute. “Farmers need a procurement agency that is ready to procure pulses at least at the minimum support price. There is no such agency right now.”

Though farmers often switch from pulses to rice, wheat or a cash crop, the area under pulses hasn’t drastically declined because most varieties of pulses are easy to grow. Tur dal, for instance, can survive with little water and inputs. This also means that tur is grown on some of India’s least fertile land.

Another reason for price hike this year has been speculation. “The government floated tenders earlier in the year, stating it was going to import pulses,” said Radhe Shyam Maheshwari, general secretary, Madhya Pradesh Merchants’ Federation for Pulses and Oilseeds. “This led pulses traders to speculate and hoard.”

One way to reduce hoarding and keep prices in check is by removing intermediaries between farmer and retailer.

“This would require states to amend the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Act, which currently prevents companies from directly procuring agricultural produce from farmers for reselling,” Gulati said.

Besides production and the acreage of pulses, yields have also not improved much.

“Between 1991-92 and 2007-08, the yield of pulses increased marginally from 533 kg per hectare to 618 kg per hectare. The global average is 817 kg per hectare,” said Pravesh Sharma, former agriculture secretary in government of Madhya Pradesh. “Focus on developing high-yield varieties is urgently needed.”

One hectare would mean about 102 three-room apartments.

In Madhya Pradesh, many farmers have also switched to soyabean. Exploring alternatives to pulses such as soyabean will help in reducing the demand for the commodity. Soyabean has three times more protein than tur dal.

Increased sowing this year brings hope of a fall in prices soon. But sowing increased this year many farmers could not grow water-guzzling crops such as paddy because of the drought.

A deficient monsoon may have forced Rathi and other farmers to switch back to tur from soyabean and water-thirsty crops such as rice, thus fuelling hopes of higher production and a fall in prices of prices. But that may be temporary.

“The area under pulses could again drop next year when the option of growing other crops is available to the farmer,” said Gulati. “This is the right time for the government to take steps in order to avoid a repeat of 2009.”