Chhole, Saambar ‘Unaffordable’ Once, Not Anymore: What Changed?

Just four years ago, high prices had put pulses beyond the reach of the poor, and the middle-classes were skimping on it. In mid-2015, at the height of the price shock in pulses, I accosted people at Delhi’s Khari Baoli spice market, for a TV programme on the issue. Ira Shukla, a former school teacher had said, “Instead of twice a day, we are eating watery dal once a day, because rates have almost doubled. Poor people cannot eat it; middle-classes like us manage somehow.”

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Sarika Arora, a homemaker said: “I have to do ‘plus-minus’ in the kitchen to remain within the budget, and give my kids less than what they ask for.”

Now, Trilochan Mohapatra, the Director-General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) talks of a ‘pulses revolution’. Narendra Pratap Singh, the Director of the Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR) in Kanpur says we are heading “towards self-sufficiency”.

Change in Price of Pulses Between 2015-2018

The wholesale price of black gram or urad in the last quarter of 2015 was 80 percent more than the price in the same quarter the previous year. That of pigeon pea or tur was Rs 8,789 a quintal in the last quarter of 2015, nearly double the price prevailing in the year-ago period. In the last quarter of 2018, it was Rs 5,900 quintal.

What has changed?

The year 2014-15 was a bad year not only for pulses but also for other crops, as rains had failed most parts of the country. Pulses production the previous year had been the highest till then.

Production has picked up in the subsequent years. Average output over the past three years has been 23 million tonnes. But demand remains high at about 32 million tonnes. The gap is met by imports, which farmers resent because it depresses prices and their incomes.

Revolutions in agriculture are evolutionary. The technology that leads to a step-change in yield and output takes a long time to bake. India’s cotton output rose after 2002 with the introduction of genetically-modified, insect-resistant cotton, developed in the United States. During the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, yields of wheat and rice shot up after seeds of high-yielding varieties bred respectively at research institutes in Mexico and the Philippines, were imported.

But India is unique in the consumption of pulses, many of which the rest of the world does not consume, or consumes in small quantities. We cannot import technologies.

The breeding has to happen here. It takes time to develop varieties that are high-yielding, resilient and suited to various regional ecologies.

Also Read: Imported Pulses in India Safe for Consumption, Says FSSAI

Chickpea: The Most-Consumed Pulse in India

Among pulses, chickpea is the most consumed in India. It has a 44 percent share of pulses production. There can be no self-sufficiency in pulses, if enough chickpea is not grown.

An event which is little known outside the realm of agricultural researchers is Andhra’s silent revolution in chickpea.

Chana was a 150-day, long-duration winter crop. The Green Revolution in rice and wheat elbowed it from north India. How it was adapted to Andhra, where winter is just a cooler version of summer, is a story in itself.

The crop has to face dry and hot weather as it matures, and is likely to be attacked by wilt, and pod borers. The credit for making this happen goes to ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, set up in 1972 in Hyderabad.

Also Read: 31.91 lakh tonnes of pulses, oilseeds procured

Andhra’s Silent ‘Chickpea Revolution’

The first set of varieties developed at ICRISAT, wilt-resistant and maturing in about 100 days, was released in 1993. But they did not click with farmers. The second set was released between 1990 and early 2000s, after six more years of research. They won over Andhra farmers, and by 2012, had replaced Annigeri, a desi variety released in 1978. Farmers gained from higher yields, and lower unit cost of production.

Over the years, the regional station at Sehore, near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, the one at Nandyal in Andhra, and Maharashtra’s agricultural universities at Akola and Rahuri, have released many varieties suited for the state. The mechanisation of sowing, spraying and threshing has helped.

Machine-harvestable varieties are now being introduced. Two irrigations are good enough for the crop. Latterly, bad weather has affected production in Andhra, but farmers still see it as a “guarantee crop” with an “easy farming method,” as Y Govardhan Reddy of Kurnool district put it.

Madhya Pradesh too, has shown continuous increases in area, production and yield. It is the largest producer in the country and the “chickpea bowl of the world” according to Pooran Gaur, ICRISAT’s Research Programme Director for Asia, and a chickpea breeder.

Mohammad Yasin, Principal Scientist at the Rafi Ahmed Kidwai College of Agriculture in Sehore, attributes Madhya Pradesh’s fascination for chickpea to the 54 improved varieties that were released since the 1960s, of which 21 are currently in the seed production system, and 15 are popular. They are high-yielding, and have maturities ranging from 85 to 120 days.

Chickpea Growing Area in India

Owing to these developments, chickpea has made up for the loss of area in northern India. In Punjab, the chickpea area, which averaged 3.2 lakh hectares between 1971 and 1980, fell to about 4,400 hectares during 2001-10. Now, Punjab does not figure among the major chickpea-producing states. At 580,000 hectares, the area in Uttar Pradesh has declined to a third of its 1971-80 level. But the country’s chickpea area of 7.5 million hectares during 1971-75, has increased to 8.22 million hectares.

Among the five major chickpea-growing states, Andhra has the lowest area, averaging 538,000 hectares between 2010-11 and 2015-16. But it is an eight-fold increase from the average of 64,700 hectares during 1971-80.

Madhya Pradesh has seen a seven-fold increase to over three million hectares during this period. Karnataka’s area under chickpea has grown six-fold, to a little less than one million hectares, while that of Maharashtra has increased more than three-fold to 1.44 million hectares. Average annual chickpea production over the past three years has been 10.27 million tonnes – double the average annual output in the three years to 2003-04.

In pigeon pea, which accounts for a quarter of the pulses production, the change has not been as compelling. But production has doubled ─ from 2.36 million tonnes in 2003-04 to nearly five million tonnes in 2016-17. But it has not stabilised, like that of chickpea, says Singh of IIPR.

Measures Taken by Govts to Increase Production of Pulses

The development of a summer variety, which matures in 55-60 days, has expanded the mung bean area in Punjab and Haryana, because of the prohibition on early planting of rice to conserve groundwater. The crop is grown after wheat, and being a legume crop, helps improve soil fertility. Summer mung bean production has doubled over the past 15 years, though the output of the rainy season (kharif) crop has been declining for much of that period.

New varieties will make little difference if they are not widely adopted, and farmers don’t follow good management practices. Policies must be supportive. Beginning with the the Manmohan Singh government, a series of measures have been taken to raise pulses production.

Pranab Mukherjee, as the then finance minister, provided funds for pulses and oil-seed villages under the Accelerated Pulses Production Programme (A3P). It was made part of the National Food Security Mission. There was emphasis on the production of quality seeds.

Under the present government, central institutes and state agricultural universities have stepped up production of breeder seeds. These are multiplied by seed corporations and extension agencies, called KVKs, through farmers. Seed subsidy is not given to varieties that are more than 10 years old. These are not only high-yielding, but also pest-and-disease-resistant. Because of the availability of quality certified seed, farmers are replacing their farm-saved ones. In chickpea, the share of certified seed has gone up three-fold to 32 percent, between 2004 and 2016. In pigeon pea, it has risen five-fold to 48 percent.

Support Prices for Pulses & The Way Forward

Support prices for pulses have gone up by 46 percent for chickpea, 52 percent for mung bean and 30 percent for pigeon pea over the past five years. Support prices didn’t make much of a different till the government started procuring. Procurement of pigeon pea rose from 45,000 tonnes in 2015-16, to 9 lakh tonnes the next year. It fell to 2.58 lakh tonnes in 2017-18 as prices moderated.

Chickpea procurement by the Centre was a modest 60,000 tonnes in 2017-18, and an equal amount the previous year. But seven states procured 3.64 lakh tonnes of chickpea in 2014-15 under their price support schemes. The amount procured is not large compared to the production, but it has a signaling effect, says Singh.

Average yield of pulses has increased from 595 kg a hectare in the three years, end of 2003-04, to 746 kg in the three years to 2017-18. If farmers are incentivized for the environmental services that pulses render (storing nitrogen from the in the soil as nodules and using less water), better farmland might be diverted to them, and better care of the crops will be taken. .

Storage is an issue. IIPR says radiation with low doses of gamma rays can prevent the infestation of bruchids (called ghun in Hindi). Dr Pooran Gaur of ICRISAT says that triple layer bags developed by Purdue University do the same, by depriving insects of oxygen. These bags are inexpensive, and don’t need insecticides. Odisha has distributed 60,000 of them to groundnut farmers this year. ICRISAT recommends them also for pulses.

(Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist and runs a website called Smart Indian Agriculture. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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