on may 28, the Maharashtra government issued an order revoking a 47-year-old ban on the sale of Lathyrus sativus, a pulse variety grown widely in the state's tribal districts. Known locally as lakhodi, and as khesari, tikhadi and tiwda in parts of Nothern India, lathyrus was incriminated for a crippling motor-neuron disease of the lower limbs, lathyrism, and its sale for human consumption was banned in Maharashtra in 1961.
The decision to lift the ban came largely as a result of an 86-day fast by Nagpur-based nutrition scientist Shantilal Kothari, known for starting India's first indigeneous soya milk plant. Kothari has been engaged in a lone battle with the Maharashtra government since 1983 for the removal of the ban, during which he produced ample evidence to prove that lakhodi was wrongly blamed for lathyrus.
Research on effects of lathyrus on human health began in the 1920s. A 1928 study by R McCarrison, director, Deficiency Diseases Inquiry, Pasteur Institute, Coonoor found no connection between the lentil and lathyrism. Lathryus was also exonerated by by the British scientist, R L H Minchin in 1940 and C Gopalan, the then assistant director of Nutrition Research Laboratory, Hyderabad (now called National Institute of Nutrition, nin) in 1950.
But Gopalan went on to head an Indian Council of Medical Research (icmr) committee whose October 1961 report was critical in the Maharashtra government banning lathyrus a month later. The report, in fact, came eight months after the centre recommended that states ban lathyrus. "This warped chronology proves that the decision to ban was a pre-fabricated one. It's useful to question if the research was influenced by the recommendation," Kothari says. Gopalan was made nin's director soon after, and his 1950 paper did not find any mention thereafter.
In 1969, Maharashtra banned the sale of lathyrus for animal consumption and in 1971 the government ordered the burning of all standing lathyrus crop in the state. The pulse variety was banned in Madhya Pradesh in 2000. But the other lathyrus-producing states in the country, Bihar, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, haven't banned the pulse. In fact, India is the only country where lathyrus is banned. The pulse is extensively cultivated and consumed in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia and Pakistan--and even France.
Even in Maharashtra, Lathyrus continues to be cultivated and consumed widely in Nagpur, Bhandara, Gondia, Chandrapur, Amravati, Yavatmal, Gadchiroli, Parbhani, Nanded, Latur, Thane and Aurangabad districts. According to the state government figures, 31,000 hectares (ha) in Maharashtra is under lathyrus cultivation. Kothari's surveys, however, put this figure at around 300,000 ha. Since a hectare produces 2.5 tonnes (according to the estimate of the state's agriculture department), the annual production in the state is about 7.5 lakh tonnes.
The crop also makes its way into the market quite easily. Much cheaper than tur and chana, the popular pulse staples of the state, lathyrus is routinely used to adulterate besan (gram flour) and other pulse products and eateries use it as a cheap substitute for expensive dals. Deceptively similar to tur dal, husked lathyrus is used to adulterate the more expensive pulse variety. Kothari says that "the ban's only effect has been to give traders a stick to intimidate farmers into selling their crop cheap."
The nutritionist has been studying various medical reports connected with the ban since 1983, and has found them replete with loopholes. "Medical texts say a person 'may' get lathyrism if he consumes 400 gm of lathyrus daily over a period of three months or more. Is such a high level of consumption possible?" he asks. The Gopalan Committee report, on the basis of which lathryrus was banned, drew on research carried out in just 20 villages in Rewa and Satna districts of Madhya Pradesh. "A nation-wide survey was not deemed necessary," Kothari says.
The research itself is flawed in many aspects, and does not prove a definite connection between the dal and the disease. It mentions that lathyrism has symptoms very similar to manganese poisoning, but fails to take into consideration the fact that the manganese is mined extensively in both the survey districts. The report's diet survey also does not confirm the connection between average per-head daily consumption and incidences of lathyrism. For instance, the disease afflicts more than 10 per cent people in village Maanjan (Rewa), where consumption is just 0.7 ounce, while in Kotar (Satna), where the per capita consumption is 9.1 ounce the disease affects just 0.7 per cent of the population.
Kothari has highlighted these inconsistencies in several petitions to the Maharashtra government. In response, two committees were constituted. In 1992, a committee chaired by S R Sengupta of the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, entrusted nin to study the connection between lathyrism and lathyrus. And in 1994-95, a high powered committee headed by Sanjay Deotale, an mla, asked the Lucknow-based Industrial Toxicology Research Centre and Central Drug Research Institute, to carry out similar research. nin never conducted any study while the Lucknow-based institute failed to find any connection between the pulse variety and the disease.
In 2003, the Sanjay Deotale Committee, of which Kothari was a part, carried out extensive research in the high lathyrus consumption districts of Bhandara, Gondia, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli, but failed to find a single patient of lathyrism in the last five years. The committee recommended that the ban be lifted (see box: Cooked research).
But it took the government more than four years to act on the committee's recommendation.
Kothari believes that now that lathyrus can be officially sold, its production will go up dramatically (see interview) "Since it is cheaper than other pulses by half (the per kg retail price at present is Rs 13-15 in rural bazaars where it continues to be sold), it will help bring down the skyrocketing pulse prices in the state." That the pulse has a good future in the state is also brought out by a state government letter dated March 11, 2005 requesting the Centre for permission to lift the ban.
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