Opinion

Why boosting pulses consumption matters

G Chandrashekhar | Updated on August 16, 2019 Published on August 14, 2019

Growers will get a better price, and consumers much-needed nutrition. Bringing the crops under PDS and other welfare schemes will help

It is well recognised that India’s dependence on imports to meet its growing consumption requirement of vegetable oil has been increasing over the years and currently stands at about 70 per cent. Admittedly, imports are necessary to bridge domestic production shortfall, augment availability and rein in undue price rise.

On the import of about 15 million tonnes of various oils, the country spends about $11 billion in foreign exchange (about ₹77,000 crore). Worse, unrestricted imports, unmonitored arrivals and poorly thought-through tariffs (rates of customs duty) have combined to keep the domestic oilseeds market depressed, aggravating farmers’ distress.

The trade and tariff policy as practised now leaves little incentive for growers here to boost domestic output. Instead of taking hard decisions to boost domestic output, stem import volumes and adequately protect growers’ interests, successive governments have exercised the facile option of continuing with liberal imports.

In her recent Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman specifically referred to self-sufficiency in pulses and urged growers to repeat the success in production of oilseeds and help reduce the large import bill.

There are two issues here. One, we are not genuinely self-sufficient in pulses. Surely, pulses production has decisively broken the 15-16 million tonnes range and moved higher to 23-24 million tonnes. This is no doubt a remarkable achievement by the growers whose confidence was buoyed by record high prices during 2015-2017. The government can claim little credit for the quantum jump in pulses harvest.

Unfortunately, pulses prices have remained depressed over the last two years (having fallen below the specified minimum support price) forcing State agencies to undertake price support operations. So, this low price phenomenon should not lull policymakers into believing that the country has achieved self-sufficiency in pulses.

The fact of the matter is that at about 14 kilograms, per capita availability of pulses (as dal fit for human consumption) is still much lower than what nutritionists recommend (20 kg). So, consumption needs to raised to address the country’s poor nutrition status.

Despite a quantum jump in production the country had nursed humongous stocks of imported pulses in 2017 and 2018. These burdensome stocks now stand gradually lightened.

Importantly, the government has failed to adopt policies to boost pulses consumption. It is common knowledge that pulses are the most economical vegetable protein available. For a country that suffers pervasive under-nutrition (especially protein deficiency), it should have been a logical decision for New Delhi to boost consumption through various welfare programmes, including the public distribution system.

Such a move would have helped advance our nutrition security, boosted pulses consumption, arrested the price fall and sent positive signals to growers. It’s a pity the Centre did not do what it rationally ought to have done (see BusinessLine August 14, 2018; June 8, 2018).

It is, therefore, heartening that the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) in its recent report has flagged the need for including pulses under PDS and other welfare programmes. Such a step would advance the interests of both growers and consumers alike.

For growers, such an initiative would improve the marketability of the crop and provide them at least the specified MSP which will keep them adequately motivated. At the same time, consumers will benefit through access to most economical vegetable protein that pulses are.

The whole of this country eats pulses every day with wheat or rice (dal-roti or dal-chawal).The nutritional value of pulses increases when mixed with fine cereals.

Importantly, the CACP has rightly warned that the production and productivity of pulses crop are highly volatile. Therefore it is critical that growers’ motivation to continue to plant pulse crops is kept high. This is possible if and only if growers continue to see remunerative returns for their harvests. Growers would then have the confidence to spend on improving agronomic practices and help raise yields from the current low levels.

Given the volatile nature of pulse production because of undue dependence on fickle monsoons, it is critical that we keep the import door open at least partially.

The government now wants the pulses revolution to be replicated in oilseeds. It will of course be a bigger challenge but eminently achievable. Current trade and tariff policies for vegetable oil import have failed to deliver tangible results except enriching speculative forces. These policies need a thorough review.

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

Published on August 14, 2019
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