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Pushing the frontiers of research

An eminent scientist with more than three decades of experience in research and teaching, Dr N Nadarajan took over as director of the Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, in September 2009. He brings to his new responsibility expertise in areas at the frontiers of research, such as biometrical genetics, marker assisted selection and breeding of pulses, rice and cotton

Dr.NatrajanBorn on 16 December 1951 in Tuticorin, Tamil Nadu, Dr Nadarajan received his doctorate degree in plant breeding and genetics from the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore, in 1987. Later, in 1998, he attended an advanced course on marker assisted selection at the Southern Cross University, Australia.

In the course of his illustrious career, Dr Nadarajan has published 170 original articles and research papers, presented 97 research papers at national and international forums, and written 10 books. He has developed 11 varieties of pulse crops besides three varieties of cotton and two varieties of rice.

Dr Nadarajan spoke to Anjali Mathur at his office in the sprawling IIPR campus about the strides made by pulses research and the challenges India faces in meeting the shortfall between demand and supply.

Why has momentum lagged behind in Indian pulses cultivation as compared to other crops in India and pulse cultivation in other countries?
I don’t think we are lagging behind; the facts show we are on par if not ahead of other countries in pulses research and cultivation. In the last 25 to 30 years, we have made big strides in research on pulses, the area under cultivation has increased by 10 to 12 per cent, production has increased by 33 per cent, and productivity has gone up by 25 per cent.

If that is so, why have prices increased so much? The retail price of dals is hovering around Rs 80-100 per kilogram, putting a very big strain on the household budget of even the middle class householder.
There are many reasons for this huge increase in prices. Our population has been multiplying at a fast pace leading to an ever-growing demand for pulses. Annually we produce about 15 million tonnes of pulses, and the shortfall in requirement is about 2.5 to 3 million tonnes, which we now make up by importing pulses from other countries.

The problem is that 85 to 90 per cent of the total area under pulses cultivation is rainfed and only 10 to 15 per cent is irrigated. Pulses are seen as high-risk crops because they are mostly grown in marginal soils, under varied climatic conditions in different parts of India, which makes them highly susceptible to both biotic and abiotic stresses. That is the reason for the poor yield farmers here get as compared to other countries where pulses are cultivated under ideal climatic and soil conditions.

Why are pulses given such step-motherly treatment by farmers?
If they have irrigation facilities and good resources, they prefer cash crops like rice or sugarcane. That is why the area under pulses in the fertile northern parts of India has drastically reduced. In areas like Punjab and Haryana, for example, where we get high yields, even higher than global averages – as much as 900 kg of pulses per hectare — farmers have shifted to cash crops. But in central and southern India, where pulses are grown on marginal lands, the area under cultivation has increased considerably.

What can we do to make it more profitable for farmers in high-yield areas to grow pulses?
If the government could make sure they get remunerative prices by offering them a minimum support price, and giving them easy access to market intelligence, they will be encouraged to plant pulses.

Better storage facilities at the village level would ensure that the crop, which tends to degenerate much faster than other crops, is not wasted, and provision of seeds, essential nutrients, pesticides etc to farmers at the right time will go a long way in increasing pulse production in the country.

What's the state of research of pulses in India as compared to research in other crops? How far behind is our frontier as compared to countries such as Canada and US?
We have many research institutes in India doing cutting edge research on pulses. Since pulses are an important crop for our country, the Indian government fully supports our efforts. So, as far as research and technology go, we are on par, if not better, than other countries.

And we have many achievements to our credit: we have created many new high-yield varieties, pest- and drought-resistant varieties; developed new production technologies for higher yield, higher productivity and pest management.

An important breakthrough is in creating a hybrid variety of pigeonpea. This feat was first achieved in Gujarat, following which we have created our own hybrid variety at IIPR.

What is the significance of this breakthrough? Could you please elaborate.
To understand why this is such an achievement, we have to understand that development of hybrids is usually difficult in pulses since they are self-pollinated. This is a major handicap because we have been able to achieve major increases in yields with other cross-pollinated crops like maize and bajra, by developing hybrids. Then it was discovered that there was a possibility of developing hybrids in pigeonpea due to a small amount of cross pollination and we have been able to develop hybrid varieties of the pulse which give higher yields.

Another breakthrough we have achieved at IIPR is in mung and urad; we have reduced the crop duration drastically to 60 days and made them thermo- and photo-insensitive. So now these crops can grow in any season. So now, in north India, where the land is usually left fallow after Rabi crops, these new varieties can be grown instead, with minimal cost and no special requirements. That boosts the farmers' earnings.

Last week, we visited farmers in Fatehpur district and one farmer told us that he was able to earn Rs 1.5 lakh from this mungbean grown on 4.5 acres in two months. This was unexpected additional income which became possible only because of the new variety of mung. So this is really an important breakthrough.

In Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, after two rice crops — Kharif rice and Rabi rice — farmers just throw our mung and urad seeds on the ground and leave them to grow with no other inputs. And they reap a good harvest of pulses in just 60 days.

For chickpea and lentils, we have created large size seeds, which have a very good potential for export. Although India imports pulses, the only crop exported — to a limited extent — is lentils or masoor. We have done much research on this to improve the seed, its size, even its colour. Kabuli chana also has export potential so we have created a few good varieties.

Another breakthrough is in the case of rajmash, which earlier was only a hilly crop. Now it has been introduced in the plains. As a Rabi or winter crop it now covers the north-eastern plains of UP, Bihar and West Bengal. Whereas the average yield in the case of pulses is 600kg per hectare, in rajmash we can get more than 2.5 tonnes per hectare.

What about the future? What are the areas at the forefront of IIPR’s research?

Our thrust areas at present are transgenics, molecular marker assisted selection and development of hybrids. To elaborate, we are developing BT pigeonpea and chickpea – which is similar to BT cotton. Basically, we isolate genes from a bacillus which have the ability to produce a protein that kills the pests that attack pulses.

Molecular marker assisted selection is a biotechnique for selection of improved varieties resistant to drought, pests and diseases. Hybrids we have already discussed.

We are networking with other Indian and global research organisations to strengthen our efforts and find solutions that improve yield, improve quality, control pests and lead to an increase in the production of pulses in India.

 
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