India needs a pulses revolution

Girish Aivalli | Updated on January 22, 2018 Published on September 22, 2015

Protein basket Better than a bread basket RAKSHASHELARE/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Reforming agriculture research and the obsession with rice-wheat cropping can help achieve this

India’s ubiquitous position as the leading producer, the foremost consumer and the largest importer of pulses is further besmirched by abysmally mediocre policy intervention and equally unimpressive agricultural research budgets. Pulses in India recorded less than 40 per cent growth in production in the past 40 years while its per capita availability declined from 60 grams a day in the 1950s to 35 grams a day in the 2000s.

Currently, even as production has stabilised at 18.5 million tonnes, our consumption is hovering at 22 million tonnes, which necessitates yearly pulse imports of around 3.5-4 million tonnes.

The prevalent rice-wheat crop rotation in the northern States, particularly in Punjab and Haryana, has depleted soil and water resources at an alarming rate. Apart from an unsustainable and inefficient agricultural cycle, India is losing precious forex (nearly $2.3 billion) while importing pulses from players such as Canada and Australia.

Price fluctuation is common in the largely unorganised pulses market of the country, and often exacerbated by the lack of assured procurement. Estimates suggest that India needs an annual growth of 4.2 per cent to ensure projected demand of 30 million tonnes by 2030. To meet this benchmark, constraints to production must be analysed and effective steps must be taken.

Here are some suggestions which may be of help.

Enhancing productivity

The major problems related to productivity of pulses and cereals are technological setbacks as well as the lack of a managerial set-up to supervise the landscape. The lack of a supporting mechanism for the procurement and marketing of pulses has been a major impediment to the propagation of pulses. Incentivising pulse production through the price mechanism will only work once the farmer is assured that the government will procure pulses vis-à-vis rice and wheat through the Food Corporation of India and other State agencies.

Low genetic yield of Indian pulses and their vulnerability to pests and diseases is a major hindrance to adoption of pulses by farmers. Being rain-fed, pulses often experience drought at critical growth stages. The risk of low productivity and income is too high for farmers to bear. The lack of drought- and disease-resistant varieties of pulse seeds is alarming.

Apart from these, public investment in agricultural research to develop high-yielding, short-duration strains of pulses, oilseeds and other horticultural crops has been exceptionally low. Unmatched inter-crop price parity is another dilemma. Remuneration and gross return over cost of production is higher in cereals and cash crops in comparison with pulses.

Lack of awareness of production technologies is a critical gap leading to low productivity. The nation needs quality extension personnel who must be trained and equipped with exceptional knowledge and latest practices. Poor availability of critical inputs including seeds, bio-pesticides and micronutrients such as zinc is another barrier.

Additionally, the creation of an extensive irrigation network in the Indo-Gangetic plain leads to cultivation of cereals and cash crops leaving pulses to less productive and rain-fed regions. Uncontrolled water flows (flooding) common in canal systems is incompatible with large-scale pulses production.

How to fix it

Identifying land for growing pulses must go hand in hand with promoting yield-augmenting and resource-saving technologies along with providing farmers better access to remunerative markets.

Diversification of the rice-wheat system in the Indo-Gangetic plain through popularisation of short-duration varieties of pigeon pea, Kabuli chickpea, field pea and summer moong-bean will be key to sustainability. Punjab, specifically, will be a great choice to promote pulses. The reasons are many: the presence of strong infrastructure including mandis, connectivity and extension services. Depletion of soil and water resources owing to long-term rice-wheat crop rotation can be addressed by diversification. Substituting rice or wheat with pulses will help soil fertility.

High productivity has been recorded in pulses in Punjab versus other States at 0.9 t/ha. Punjab is a major contributor to PDS granaries, which are overflowing and rotting. A proportionate area under rice or wheat can be diverted towards pulses without hitting supply or buffer stock.

Punjab can induce summer moong in late May before sowing rice. This will greatly benefit farmers facing delayed monsoons as summer moong is harvested in July when the rains pick up. Promulgation of land diversion towards pigeon pea and moong in districts such as Sangrur, Ferozpur, Ludhiana, Bhatinda and Moga, which are also prominent procurement centres, will improve production.

The active participation of the government can be substantiated through a designated central or State nodal agency, similar to the FCI or NAFED, for assured procurement of pulses at the State level. Thus, at the very least, assured procurement operations can be strengthened in focus districts.

Remuneration and gross return over cost of production must incentivise the adoption of pulses over paddy and wheat, else the subsidy cycle via MSPs and non-price mechanisms will be endless and untenable. The MSP of pulses and wheat-paddy can be aligned while States such as Punjab offer bonuses for pulses depending on their requirements and targets.

Given the high mechanisation in Punjab and increasing labour costs, suitable sturdier strains need to be developed for mechanical harvesting with pods above the canopy. The use of drip irrigation in pigeon pea and agronomic practices such as transplantation and nipping of branches are showing encouraging results. Drip irrigation will be easily affordable in Punjab and can be additionally subsidised for pulse-growing farmers.

Farmer awareness

Targeting large farmers of the State will bring higher returns. Given the high price risk of growing pulses, propagation with large farmers who possess more than five acres of land would be most prudent.

They may divert an acre toward pulses and have greater risk-absorbing capacity in case of inadvertent loss. Large-scale and progressive farmers can be monitored and trained easily.

To promote pulses with small farmers, a pulses insurance scheme may be devised to cover losses due to unseasonal rains or natural calamities. Promoting the quality of rhizobium through manufacturers in the pulse-growing regions of Punjab by offering capital subsidy, stamp duty exemption or viability gap funding, will be another effective step.

Dal mills and processing facilities should be encouraged within the vicinity of production areas, which will promote off-farm employment. A detailed study and pilot project may be warranted in initiating nitrogen credit for farmers. PPP in seed production, inputs, promotion and extension must be mapped out.

India has the potential to achieve much higher agricultural productivity. The only need is to utilise available resources in the most effective way and to improve the methodologies used.

The writer is the MD and CEO of Rural Agri Ventures

Published on September 22, 2015
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor