Agri Business

MP govt’s dangerous move: Chana purchases with toxic khesar admixture

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on June 05, 2020 Published on June 05, 2020

The Madhya Pradesh government deserves to be complimented for supporting pulse growers by deciding to buy chana (gram or chickpea) at the minimum support price (MSP) of ₹4,875 a quintal. While the country recently harvested a record 109 lakh tonnes of chana, farm-gate prices have remained depressed below the MSP (by about 20 per cent) at ₹4,000 a quintal.

However, the State government has embarked on a dangerous course by permitting purchase of chana with 2 per cent khesar (botanical name: lathyrus sativus, also known as ‘grass pea’), a legume long suspected to be toxic. This purchase policy — chana mixed with khesar — can potentially lead to serious health consequences over time. The Centre has permitted the admixture, according to press reports.

The opinion of scientists about the desirability of consuming lathyrus is mixed. A section strongly believes that consumption of khesar dal regularly over time may lead to severe health complications including paralysis. At the same time, anecdotal reports suggest consuming this pulse in meagre quantities does not hurt.

Given that the jury is still out and there is no conclusive evidence either way, it would make eminent sense to follow the ‘precautionary principle’. Why should any government formally allow the admixture of a toxic substance in a food product?

Scope for malpractice

By permitting 2 per cent admixture, the M.P. government is actually encouraging growers to deliberately mix khesar dal in chana that is offered for government purchase. Also, there is no guarantee, in actual practice, the 2 per cent tolerance norm will be strictly followed. Any malpractice can potentially play havoc with the health of consumers.

Khesar dal has had a controversial history in our country. Sale and storage of the crop was banned several decades ago, but not cultivation. So, even now, it is cultivated in certain parts of North and Central India, as growing of the crop comes at virtually no cost and does not involve any agronomic management.

While the normal planted area for this rabi crop is about 4 lakh hectares, the actual acreage has fallen slightly below the mark and has ranged between 3.0 lakh and 3.3 lakh hectares. Chhattisgarh accounts for over two-third of the area, followed at a distance by West Bengal.

The Ministry of Agriculture tracks the area under lathyrus cultivation. Production is estimated to be in the range of 2.4-3.0 lakh tonnes. According to the Directorate of Pulse Development, Bhopal, there has been no cultivation of lathyrus in M.P. since 2014-15, per data available in the Agriculture Ministry website.

Inconvenient questions

If M.P. does not cultivate khesar, why should the State government permit 2 per cent admixture in its procurement? Does it mean the pulse may be brought from Chhattisgarh, mixed with chana and sold to the M.P. government? Why did the Ministry of Agriculture permit the M.P. government to procure chana with 2 per cent khesar mixed when its own records show there is no khesar cultivation in the State? These are really inconvenient questions the government needs to answer.

This kind of misadventure is seen at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented health crisis in the form of Covid-19 and, as a result, millions of wage earners have lost their livelihood and are likely to fall below the poverty line.

The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal

Published on June 05, 2020
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