'Dal' is a bit of a stretch; what India gets from Canada is yellow peas, a legume primarily used as animal and poultry feed in Europe and North America that has a nutritional profile similar to Indian pulses. But, hey, it's high in protein and fibre and that, enterprising Indian importers figured, is what matters. They successfully sold the idea of buying pulses from Canada – at animal feed rates – to the Indian goverment.
In turn, the government had to hardsell the low-priced ‘yellow peas dal’ to the public. It took an aggressive campaign, begun in 2009 by the Department of Consumer Affairs, to overcome consumer resistance to a non-traditional food item for which there was no natural demand.
Today, yellow peas constitute some 70 percent of India's total pulses imports, comprising 40–50 percent, or nearly half of Canada's production of the legume. Import estimates of yellow peas for 2012–13 stand at 1.7 million tonnes. The rest includes pigeon pea, or tur dal, also known as arhar, gram (chickpea), urad (black gram), moong (green gram), masur (lentil) and kidney beans (rajma).
Food Security Ordinance may magnify problem
India's imports are expected to escalate further with the promulgation of the Food Security Ordinance. With 67 percent of the population accessing cereals at low prices, surplus funds from the household food budget will likely be spent on a more varied and nutritious diet, which includes pulses. The demand for pulses is likely to increase.
All of which begs the question: why can't the country grow enough of its traditional dals instead of depending on external sources and introducing a new variety of pulses into the Indian diet?
While there has been a jump in dal production in the last three years, from an average of 14 million tonnes (MT) a year to about 17.5 MT, demand hovers at 22 MT. Even with imports of 3 MT and rising (3.5 MT in 2011-12), the gap has not been bridged and is likely to widen further. India grows a quarter of the world's pulses but consumes a third.
We used to eat even more of it. The per capita consumption of dals has drastically decreased in comparison to over five decades ago, which explains why protein malnutrition is rampant. In fact, the availability of dal now is half the 71 gms per person per day it was in 1951, less than the 40 gms per person per day recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
A 2010 research paper confirmed what is already common knowledge: dals are the cheapest and most widely consumed source of protein in India. Nine of 10 people, whether rich or poor, have dal at least once a week (only one in three have animal protein once a week).
Why we suffer from a pulse deficit
The main reason why India suffers from a pulse deficit is, ironically, the Green Revolution. Intended to wipe out hunger, it inadvertently encouraged protein malnutrition by severely distorting cropping patterns in favour of cereals and against pulses. Back in the 1950s, pulses accounted for 17 percent of our total foodgrain production and, therefore, comprised a large share of the food basket and daily diet. In 2008-09, only six percent of total grains were pulses. To be food-secure and tackle endemic malnutrition, India needs to rectify this imbalance.
The productivity of pulses has grown some 45 percent in the last 60 years – piffling, as compared to wheat and rice, which have grown at 320 percent and 230 percent respectively in the same period. The area under pulses – around 26 million hectares – has grown at 25 percent during this period, also a much lower rate than that for cereals.
Despite a variety of programmes to boost domestic production of pulses, 2005-06 proved to be a bad year, forcing the government to ban export of pulses and make imports duty-free. The import of pulses for the PDS is now to the tune of Rs 20 per kg. The Ministry of Agriculture also substantively altered its policy and improved returns on pulses vis-a-vis competing crops, thereby leading to higher production. Much of the recent increase is a result of gram being introduced in non-traditional growing areas in south India, particularly Andhra Pradesh.
The current production levels still need to be substantially enhanced. India's demand for pulses is variously projected at 32 to 42 MT in the next 15 years, which means production would have to grow at anything from 4 to 6.5 percent. But after 2010, admittedly a blockbuster year, production has dipped by a million tonnes.
State governments have started including dals in their Public Distribution Systems in order to tackle malnutrition. Tamil Nadu showed the way and Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh quickly followed suit. Although the traditional tur is preferred, governments resort to yellow peas as a substitute and also use it to moderate the price of pulses in the domestic market. Farmers are understandably against import of cheap pulses, since it brings prices down.
The difference between the market and PDS price of dals is substantial, with a subsidy component of more than 50 percent. This creates the possibility of large scale stealing of pulses from the PDS to the open market, particularly in times of scarcity.
So, what’s the remedy?
The answer, then, is to shift focus from imports to domestic production. It has been suggested that lands be leased in African countries for growing tur, the most commonly consumed pulse after gram. But the increasing resistance by the African people to outsiders controlling the means of production makes this at best a supplementary option.
Getting back to the critical issue of why pulses were marginalized as a matter of policy, prima facie it makes little sense. Given that they are not only a cheap source of high quality protein for a significantly vegetarian population but help improve soil fertility, need less water than cereals and control diseases and pests when grown in rotation with other crops, pulses ought to have been encouraged rather than the other way around.
But the very fact that pulse-based cropping systems are environmentally sustainable and non-resource intensive means that they are unattractive for the agri-industry. Crops like wheat, rice and sugarcane, which require high doses of expensive external inputs including hybrid seeds, are naturally more lucrative. Global corporations lobbied intensively to increase acreage under these crops. Pulses were pushed aside in the bargain.
Farmers relegated pulses to marginal, non-irrigated soils, considering it a risky crop in the absence of price support. Thus, even when market prices of pulses have increased, farmers have not increased supply. In economic terms, pulses display an inelastic supply response to prices.
Public investment in the cultivation of pulses appears to be the only effective way of enhancing production. This means ensuring farmers' access to quality seeds, effective crop protection systems (preferably non-pesticidal), integration of pulses in existing cropping systems and, most important of all, minimum support prices in excess of market prices. Encouraging farmers to preserve and develop their own varieties and adopting non-pesticidal management (NPM) systems will make pulse production more cost-effective for the farmer.
For all our fondness for dal, boosting its production and becoming self-sustaining in it will require India to listen to its farmers and consumers – and not its corporations.
Bhavdeep Kang has been a journalist for 27 years. She has worked with The Times of India, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express, The Pioneer, The Telegraph, India Today and Outlook. Today, she writes on politics, agriculture and food policy. Follow her at https://twitter.com/bhavkang
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