India is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and importer of pulses. Apart from playing a critical role in providing protein to millions, pulses contribute significantly to food security and nutritional well-being. However, the pulses sector faces numerous challenges, including yield gaps, volatile market fluctuations, limited processing infrastructure, and insufficient brand recognition.

Three Union Ministers — Home Minister Amit Shah, Agriculture Minister Arjun Munda and Food and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal — have underscored the government’s commitment to augment domestic production to reduce dependence on imports and achieve atmanirbhar or self-sufficiency in pulses by 2027.

To unlock its true potential and contribute to India’s sustainable development objectives, a comprehensive strategy centred on research, farmer empowerment, and value-added processing is imperative.

Addressing the disparity between India’s average pulse yield of 814 kg/ha and the global average of 1,694 kg/ha (ICAR, 2023) requires concerted efforts in impact-oriented research. Thrust on developing high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties through genomic technologies, exemplified by ICAR-IIPR’s success in raising chickpea yields by 15 per cent, is pivotal.

Additionally, climate-resilient agronomic practices such as drip irrigation, which reduces water use by 40-50 per cent and increases yields by 20-30 per cent (World Bank, 2022), are essential for mitigating risks and optimising resource utilisation. Investing in bio-fortification programmes, like HarvestPlus’ iron-enriched lentil varieties, will address nutritional deficiencies, notably of iron which affects 53 per cent of Indian women (NFHS-5, 2019-21).

FPO-centric value chain

Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) hold immense potential in transforming the sector by empowering small and marginal farmers. Despite exceeding 10,000 in number (NABARD, 2022), FPO engagement in pulses remains limited, with only 8 per cent actively involved. To bridge this gap, government and private initiatives must provide financial and technical support for FPO formation and capacity building in areas such as seed production, custom hiring centres for renting machinery, and procurement of pulses grown by the member farmers.

Facilitating collective bargaining mechanisms strengthens farmers’ negotiating power, while contract farming arrangements offer stability and predictable income. NITI Aayog reports that contract farming can increase farmer income by 20-30 per cent. FPOs can further enhance their value proposition by investing in quality control and branding to unlock access to the premium domestic market initially, and the global market in due course.

Despite India being the largest pulse producer globally, value addition is low. Currently, only 20 per cent of pulses undergoes processing, compared to the global average of 80 per cent (World Bank, 2022). This presents a missed opportunity, particularly considering the burgeoning global demand for plant-based protein, which is expected to touch $182 billion by 2030.

To capitalise on this potential, the sector needs to invest in modern processing facilities and foster new product innovation. From pulse flours and protein concentrates to ready-to-eat meals and snacks, catering to diverse consumer segments creates exciting avenues for growth. Strategic branding can elevate pulses from staple commodities to premium health foods, both domestically and internationally. A Pulses Board can play a crucial role in promoting the crop through consumer awareness campaigns and market linkages, working along with NAFED and NCCF.

By embracing a holistic demand-driven strategy that addresses both production and market-side challenges, India’s pulses sector can overcome its hurdles and grow.

The writer is Executive Director, Federation of Seed Industry of India