Pulses can fix atmospheric nitrogen and reduce cultivation costs for the succeeding crop – something that a Government keen on cutting subsidies should bear in mind.

The Reserve Bank of India Deputy Governor, Subir Gokarn, is worried about the spurt in prices of pulses that could be the precursor to a fresh ‘protein shock’. He has reasons to be so. Chana dal (Bengal gram) is currently retailing at around Rs 65 a kg, as against Rs 40 a year ago. The average annual increase in the wholesale price index for pulses, at 28.3 per cent in July, was way above even the 10.1 per cent inflation in all food articles. Moreover, poor monsoon rains have led to lower kharif acreages this time, particularly in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka, which may have a bearing on prices in the coming months as well. In a sense, 2009 – again a bad monsoon year when prices soared some 35 per cent – is being repeated. Hopefully, this is only a temporary setback: The last couple of years have actually seen pulses output reach 17-18 million tonnes (mt), after languishing at 13-15 mt through the nineties and much of the last decade. That helped keep a leash on prices, which now seems to be untangling.

All this raises larger questions on why the country isn’t able to increase pulses production on a sustainable basis. It is not that scientists have done a bad job. Take arhar or red gram, which was traditionally grown as a 300-330 day crop. Today, there are varieties and hybrids, maturing in 150-180 days, while giving the same or higher yields. Thus, even if pulses yields may have risen only marginally on an ‘annual average’ basis (from roughly 450 to 650 kg a hectare since Independence), farmers have gained from productivity improvements on a ‘crop-day’ basis – something that the overall production statistics fails to capture. The other significant research accomplishment pertains to breaking geographical barriers. In the old days, chana was grown only in the North, whereas Andhra Pradesh alone now produces close to one mt. Yields in the State have more than doubled since the nineties, courtesy breeding of both short-duration as well as better wilt-resistant varieties.

The problem in pulses has more to do with their ‘orphan crop’ status. Pulses neither receive sufficient official procurement support that wheat and paddy get, nor do farmers view them as commercial crops on par with cotton or soyabean. It has resulted in their cultivation, over the years, being pushed to marginal lands prone to moisture stress. Breaking this impasse requires a conscious strategy to promote pulses production, including in irrigated areas. Farmers in Punjab planting arhar instead of paddy in kharif, for instance, can be given an extra bonus over the regular minimum support price for the wheat they grow in the rabi season. The fact that pulses can fix atmospheric nitrogen, and deliver thereby up to a quarter of nutrient savings for the succeeding crop, should additionally help the Government save on its fertiliser subsidy bill.

(This article was published on August 20, 2012)
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