How pulses can regain their lost glory in India

Ensuring that pulses sell at the minimum support price and distributing them under the public distribution system can help them find favour with farmers again

NAFED and the India Pulses and Grains Association have demanded that the government include pulses in the public distribution system

When India went into its first lockdown in 2020, the government announced Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), under which over 800 million people were to be provided rice, wheat, and pulses, in addition to the ration provided under the public distribution system (PDS). More than 1.2 million tonnes of pulses were distributed under PMGKAY between April and November 2020. While rice and wheat are already a part of India’s food security programme, this was the first time the government distributed pulses at such a large scale.

The National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India (NAFED), which is the nodal procurement agency for pulses (like Food Corporation of India, or FCI, is for rice and wheat), faced initial hiccups since it had no prior experience in distribution under PDS. “Tying up with millers at such a short notice and for such a large volume, that too at the time of the pandemic where there were logistical issues was a real challenge,” Kamlendra Srivastava, executive director, NAFED told Down To Earth (DTE).

Over the years, there have been demands from various quarters, including NAFED and the India Pulses and Grains Association, that the government include pulses in its PDS. NAFED currently procures five major pulses — gram (chana), green gram (moong), black gram (urad), lentils (masoor), pigeon pea (tur or arhar) on behalf of the Union government from farmers at the minimum support price (MSP). The procurement is capped at 25 per cent of the actual production for that year / season. “There is no limit on the procurement of wheat and rice. If the limit on pulses is removed, it can help ease the demand,” said Srivastava.

Pulses’ inclusion under PDS makes sense in a country that has dismal nutrition indicators. The Global Hunger Index (2020), which is calculated on the basis of undernourishment of the population, child stunting, wasting and child mortality, placed India at the 94th spot among 107 countries.

Though some states already include them under their Integrated Child Development Scheme and mid-day meal programmes, pulses’ inclusion under PDS could help fight malnutrition. Experts also say it will encourage farmers to grow more pulses.

“Unless demand is created and farmers are encouraged to grow pulses, dependence on imports will be there,” said Srivastava. Sandip Das, senior consultant at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, however, warned: There will be extreme shortage in the market if pulses are distributed under PDS.

Suresh Agrawal, president of All India Dal Mill Association, said that though MSP for pulses has been increased in recent years, it is still just about equal to or even less than the cost of production for the farmers. ”The MSP of tur should be at least Rs 70 per kilogram instead of Rs 60 per kg,” he said.

Gyaneshwar Dekale, who runs a farmer production organisation in Washim district of Maharashtra, said that NAFED gives very little time to farmers to supply pulses. The registration process is complicated and after that the pulses have to be given within 45 days. There is also an issue of variety and quality. In such a situation, farmers sell pulses in the market instead of NAFED. Resolving these issues can improve production and sale of pulses, he added.

An Expert Committee formed in January 1999 on the recommendation of the Standing Committee of Parliament on Agriculture said in its report on May 15, 2000, that the National Pulses Development Project should be reviewed and an action plan prepared to increase the production of pulses.

One of the recommendations was to improve the seed quality and ensure that they reach the farmers in proper quantity. However, production of seeds is a major problem.

The National Seed Corporation Ltd produces seeds based on the demand from the states. This is an elaborate process. Block-level officers in the district send the data for three years of seed after calculating the requirement of new and old varieties in consultation with the farmers. This data is sent to the directorates of the crop concerned.

C Bharadwaj of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, explained that the main reason for seed production is the lack of estimation of the need for the right seed varieties by the states. When new varieties are sent to the states, farmers do not adopt them because they have not demanded those seeds. Agriculture being a state subject, the government should understand the needs of the farmers and merely increasing the production of seeds will not work, he said. 

The seed replacement rate (SRR) of pulses is also quite slow. SRR tells how much area has been sown from certified seeds and how much from farm-saved seeds.

Certified seeds have a direct bearing on the yield. IP Singh, scientist at the Indian Institute for Pulses Research (IIPR) said that tur’s SSR currently is 35 per cent whereas, according to the Directorate of Pulses Development, Bhopal, it should have been up to 42 per cent in 2021-22. According to the NITI Aayog Working Group report, SRR for pulses should range from 20 to 100 per cent.

The Essential Commodities Act, 1955, fixed a limit of 200 tonnes for storage of pulses on wholesalers, which is too less, said Ramnik Chheda, mahanagar chairperson of the Confederation of All India Traders, Maharashtra. “The storage limit was fixed in 1955, when the population was just 250 million. At present, the limit should be 2,000 tonnes."

Protect small players

The annual consumption of pulses in India currently is about 26 million tonnes and will reach 39 million tonnes by 2050, as per Vision 2050 published by IIPR in 2015. Due to the increasing demand for pulses, corporate groups have started increasing their presence in the pulses business, especially with rapid rise of online retail.

So far, pulses had to pass through multiple channels to reach the consumer. For example, a farmer in a village buys pulses from a trader and a miller buys it from a trader, from whom the wholesaler buys it and transports it to the retailer. Corporate groups are working at what is being called “farm to fork” strategy to dilute the link between farmers and consumers and supply food straight from the farm to the plate.

The three largest corporate groups of the country — Tata, Ambani and Adani — have entered the pulses business. Reliance Home Products, a Reliance Group company led by Mukesh Ambani, launched the brand Good Life in 2009; Tata Chemicals started the business of branded pulses in 2010; and Adani-Wilmar Limited, a company of the Adani Group, entered the pulses business in 2012. Adani-Wilmar is a major player in the food market under the name of Fortune. Apart from these, branded pulses of companies like Big Bazaar, ITC and Rajdhani are available in all major markets.

Corporate groups are not only building huge godowns to store large quantities of crops, but also setting up processing units of pulses. After processing, the pulses are directly delivered to the retail market.

Suresh Agrawal, president of All India Dal Mill Association, said that after the arrival of large corporates, the business of small pulses’ mill owners is affected because the capacity of large business groups to buy, store and deliver crops in large quantity at the right time to the market is better. Agrawal says that governments should help small mill owners compete with these big companies. “Companies sell pulses in their own branded packets and once the rate is printed, the prices do not come down. Whereas traders selling pulses in the open also reduce the prices according to the time and demand,” says Agrawal, highlighting that small traders are more conducive to the local economy.

Given the importance of pulses in food and nutritional security, the United Nations declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Soil and Pulses: Symbiosis of Life report released on the occasion, established an implicit relationship between pulses and soil quality, and their criticality to Sustainable Development Goals.

The roots of pulses and legumes contain soil enriching bacteria collectively known as Rhizobium. Therefore pulses perform biological fixation of environmental nitrogen. They also increase organic matter in the soil, improve quality and maintain its biodiversity. Pulses enhance fertility and reduce the consumption of major fertilisers required for the cultivation of food crops by millions of tonnes globally, says Subash Chandran, an expert on forest ecology and ecosystem management based in Bengaluru.

Farmers are well aware of the direct or indirect benefits of pulses to health and environment, and so include them in the crop cycle. But this cycle is breaking for a few decades. This is not good from either the environmental or the health points of view.

The story first appeared in the September 1-15 print issue of DTE.

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