India has been facing a problem of persistent shortage in pulses production. And this has worsened with the significant fall in output during the 2023-24 crop year to about 234 lakh tonnes from around 260 lakh tonnes in 2022-23 and 273 lakh tonnes in 2021-22, per the second advance estimates released by the Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare on February 29, 2024.

As a result, inflation in the ‘pulses and products’ group has gained momentum, accelerating to over 20 per cent in December 2023 from about 13 per cent in August 2023. It has, however, moderated slightly to about 17 per cent in March 2024 with augmented supplies through imports, fresh market arrivals and imposition of stock limits.

Also, all the major pulses witnessed a drop in cultivation — moong (green gram) registered a steep fall of over 40 per cent in acreage and about 60 per cent in output, followed by urad (black gram) with around 20 per cent fall in acreage and output — in 2023-24 compared to that in the previous year primarily due to deficit rainfall in major producing States. Although the acreage under chana and tur witnessed a fall of 2.6 per cent and 0.6 per cent, respectively, their output remained nearly the same as that in the previous year.

Interestingly, the rise in prices of tur has been much steeper, at 30-40 per cent, than of moong and urad, at 10-14 per cent, during the past six months or so. This was plausibly driven by speculation and hoarding. Any significant rise in the prices of pulses, which are a cheap source of protein and an essential part of the Indian menu, would affect the poor the most, depriving them of a balanced diet.

Unlike major cereals, the domestic production of pulses — despite a significant increase during the past decade to about 234 lakh tonnes in 2023-24 from about 171 lakh tonnes in 2014-15 — continues to lag demand. As a result, India has remained dependent on pulses imports — averaging 25 lakh tonnes per annum during the last five years — to meet domestic consumption demand.

However, with the drastic reduction in domestic output, the imports of pulses are expected to have risen steeply in 2023-24. Commerce Ministry data show aggregate imports of pulses increased by about 60 per cent to 32.5 lakh tonnes during April-January 2023-24 from about 20.3 lakh tonnes in the corresponding period of last year.

Limited import sources

Unlike oilseeds, the scope for augmenting supplies of pulses through imports in the short-term is limited as India is the largest producer as well as consumer of pulses in the world. Myanmar has been the traditional source of imports for turmoong and urad, while for peas it is Canada and Australia. However, some of the African countries, including Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi and Kenya, have become sources of imports in recent years. Further, the prices in these exporting countries can be influenced by the shortages in India and may become much costlier than the domestically produced pulses. Hence, it is essential to reduce the dependency on imports and increase the domestic production through appropriate long-term strategies.

The per capita availability of pulses has declined steadily from about 25 kg in 1961 to 16 kg in 2021 due to sluggish growth in production since the 1960s. There has been a significant shift in cropping pattern from cereal-pulse to cereal-cereal, particularly in irrigated areas across the country.

The extent of area irrigated for sugarcane, wheat and rice stood at 96 per cent, 95 per cent and 65 per cent, respectively, while that of pulses is only about 23 per cent, according to the Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture.

As a result, the yields and output of pulses have remained low. Hence, there is an urgent need to expand pulses production through development and cultivation of high-yielding varieties and technologies. In addition, it is essential to enhance post-harvest management and direct market linkages to ensure remunerative prices for farmers.

Pulses are an indispensable part of the Indian food basket both among the rich and the poor alike. But the persistent deficit in domestic production and the consequent rise in prices are making them unaffordable for the poor. While a number of steps have been taken by the government to augment open market supplies in the short-term with imports and limitations on stock-holding, it is imperative to raise production in the long-run.

Immediate steps must be taken to promote pulses cultivation in fertile and irrigated areas, providing input incentives and assured remunerative prices. Further, cultivation of pulses can promote sustainable agriculture by enriching soil fertility and conserving water, with minimal irrigation and short crop duration. Towards this, the agricultural extension system needs to create awareness among the farmers regarding the positive externalities of pulses cultivation.

Reddy is Joint Director, School of Crop Health Policy Support Research, ICAR-National Institute of Biotic Stress Management, Raipur, and Lingareddy is Senior Economist, Financial Markets, Sustainable Finance and Agriculture, Mumbai. Views are personal