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Cover Story

Low Pulse

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Feb 28, 2010 | From the print edition

Spiralling prices of pulses have shown India’s dependence on imports. Pulses are integral to India’s diet but not its food policy. As a result, supply cannot meet demand. What are the consequences and solutions?

Surendra Nath has switched to eating grass-pea, though he knows it is not good for health. But so is tobacco, he argues.

He cannot do without pulses and pigeon-pea selling at Rs 100 a kg is beyond his means. The 45-year-old electrician-cum-security-in-charge at a housing society in
 
east Delhi earns Rs 5,000 a month and has a seven-member family to support. “My wife insists on cooking pulses at least once a day, so we have switched to khesari (grass-pea), the cheapest available dal, that too at Rs 60 a kg,” he said.

Nath belongs to Bihar, where pulses, especially pigeon-pea (known as tur or arhar in India), form an integral part of the diet. Only cattle and the poorest of the poor would eat grass-pea since it can cause neurological disorders like paralysis and stunted growth on regular consumption over a long period.
   

Nath recalls a saying in Bihari, “ tudup taari, bel khesari ”, which means, “while the backward caste people consumed intoxicants, the ox consumed grass-pea”. To keep good health he tries larding his conversation with humour. “Now that we are on khesari, there is nothing for the ox,” he said.

In several villages in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh people now keep pigeon-pea for special occasions; peas and potatoes are the new staple.

Pulses were displaced from their prime position in many an Indian platter when their prices doubled a year ago.
   
Pigeon pea, which cost Rs 50 a kg earlier, was for Rs 120. Greengram saw a similar price rise and most other pulses were above Rs 70 a kg.

While the poor cut down on pulses, their main source of protein, the middle class grudgingly stuck to its preferred pulses. “Adjustments are made in other expenses; rice, wheat and pulses are the basic requirements,” said Sonila Sinha, a teacher in Delhi’s suburb Noida and mother of two growing children.

Pulses are essential for protein, body’s building blocks, she stressed.

Though rice and wheat have some protein, they do not have the right amino acids. The only other source of protein in human diet is animal protein, like chicken and egg. Since the majority in India are vegetarian that source is out of question. “With rising prices we are robbed of the pulse protein as well,” said Veena Shatrugna, a nutritionist formerly with the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad.

Why prices jumped

Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar blamed the jump in pulse prices on flagging imports, low production and increased purchasing power of the Indian consumer. The reduction in global production and high international prices slowed down the import of pulses in the past two years.

In 2007-08, India imported 2.85 million tonnes of pulses and next year, 2.32 million tonnes. This year imports were delayed because of late payment to exporters and low stocks with main exporting countries. “We expect imports of four million tonnes by the end of this year since there is a shortage within the country,” said K C Bhartiya, chairperson of the Pulses Importers Association.

Since India is the biggest consumer of pulses, demand within the country influences international prices. Some pulse-exporting countries factor Indian demand in their production. India is also the biggest producer of pulses.

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