A path-breaking feature of the relief and income-support package for farmers, daily-wage earners and migrant workers announced by the Finance Minister recently is the decision to supply free ration of staples to vulnerable individuals and households.
The supply of 5 kg of rice or wheat per individual per month and 1 kg of pulse per household per month, free of cost, over the next three months will be over and above entitlements under various publicly-funded welfare programmes of the government.
The scheme is set to benefit around 800 million individuals and 160 million households. The Food Corporation of India currently nurses about 58.5 million tonnes of buffer stocks and strategic reserves of fine cereals rice and wheat, far in excess of the minimum buffer norm of 21 million tonnes.
Availability of stocks
Currently, rice stocks are at a staggering 31 million tonnes and wheat 27.5 at million tonnes in the central pool. In addition, a large wheat crop — in the vicinity of 100 million tonnes — is ready for harvest. So, there is not much concern about availability of rice and wheat.
Pulses, on the other hand, would be a slightly different story. Procurement agency NAFED currently carries about 2.2 million tonnes of various pulses, of which chickpea or chana accounts for 1.5 million tonnes. Again, a large crop of chana , estimated at 10-10.5 million tonnes, is waiting to be harvested.
So, the question is not about availability of pulses, but about which pulse should be delivered to the households in need. At one kg, 160 million households will need 1,60,000 tonnes of pulses and a total of 4,80,000 tonnes over a three-month period.
Chana is the ideal candidate for the welfare programme. Stocks are adequate and the pulse has acceptability virtually all across the country. Also, unlike pigeon pea or urad that need to be milled, it is easy to consume chana , by simply soaking in water overnight before cooking.
Increase pulse ration
However, 1 kg per household per month is too meagre. Assuming there are five persons per household, each gets to consume only 200 g of pulses per month or less than 7 g per person per day. There is a strong case for at least doubling the pulse ration to 2 kg per household and possibly even to 3 kg.
This is indeed critical for advancing nutrition security. After all, pulses are the most economical vegetable protein and their nutritional value enhances when mixed with fine cereals. Two kg per household would mean distribution of 9,60,000 tons over next three months, something our country can well afford.
The move will not only benefit consumers but also growers, as there will be a significant improvement in the marketability of the crop. Currently, at about ₹4,200 a quintal, chana prices are 20 per cent below the minimum support price (MSP) of ₹4,875 per quintal. Growers will feel encouraged when prices trend upwards.
A logical extension of the decision to supply pulses to needy households over the next three months will be to ensure that along with rice and wheat, pulses are supplied through the public distribution system at an appropriate price, which would be the responsibility of the Central government. No additional distribution infrastructure is required. The one simple yet effective way to fight protein deficiency is by encouraging people to consume more pulses.
It is time the policymakers sent the right price signals to pulse growers, as the next planting season (kharif 2020-21) is only two months away. Merely announcing higher MSP is unlikely to serve the intended purpose. Market-driven price signals are what growers are looking for, not government-announced MSP.
Robust procurement and boosting of consumption through welfare programmes such as the PDS should be the way forward for pulses in our country.
The writer is a policy commentator and agribusiness specialist. Views are personal