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The pulses crisis

Tata's MoPu initiative is a long-overdue plan that will help improve nutrition, conserve water, and benefit the country financially, says S Viswanathan in an article from the Industrial Economist

Since 1990–91, there has been little change in the area under pulses and gram; productivity has not improved during this period; hence, production has been static. But the population predominantly dependent on pulses for protein has increased by around 32 crore (to over 85 crore) during this period. Hence this pulses shortage and the significant spurt in prices.

In the late 1980s, the Government of India set up six technology missions, for drinking water, literacy, oilseeds, etc., under the chairmanship of Sam Pitroda. This mission mode did help in a sharp focus and achieved a good measure of success. For instance, oilseed production, which had long been stagnant, increased, from 18.6 mn tonnes in 1991 to nearly 30 mn tonnes in 2007–08. There has been similarly modest success in the production of foodgrains — from 209.8 mn tonnes in 1991 to around 230 mn tonnes last year.

stagnant production

Mode was not introduced for another major food crop, viz. pulses. This perhaps explains the stagnation in production: 14.3 mn tonnes in 1990–91 and 14.2 mn tonnes estimated for 2008–09. Production of tur gram was static, being 2.4 mn tonnes in both years. The area under pulses has also remained around 23–24 mn ha. If we take into account the sizeable increase in population during this period and the demand for an increase in the consumption of pulses, thanks to improved standards of living, a measure of the current crisis in pulses can be understood.

In a country with a population of 117 crore, the majority of whom infrequently or never eat meat, pulses are the major source of protein for a sizeable section of the citizenry. The big spurt in pulses prices, especially tur dal (red gram), is seriously diminishing the consumption of this vital source of protein. One notices a tendency to cut the dal content in the massive mid-day meal programme for school children.

The Tata MoPu initiative

r gopalakrishnan
R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, in a recent presentation at the Indian Merchants Chamber, Mumbai, highlighted the emerging crisis in pulses, "which is crucial to India but of minuscule interest to the rest of the world.” He points out that it is India, the largest producer and the largest importer of pulses in the world, that will suffer the most if she doesn't find a way out of the pulses crisis.

Gopalakrishnan has been closely associated with Indian agriculture for over four decades — initially in his service with Hindustan Lever and now with the Tatas. He is the chairman of the largest producer of plant protection chemicals, Rallis India Ltd, and vice chairman of Tata Chemicals Ltd, a large producer of fertilisers, soda ash, salt and other chemicals. It is, therefore, welcome news that he should be taking the initiative to attend to this emerging crisis. The Tata MoPu (More Pulses) initiative has been undertaken to improve productivity in the major pulse-producing states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, UP and Karnataka. The Rallis Kisan Kutumba, well spread throughout Karnataka, and the Tata Kisan Kendra of Tata Chemicals in UP will offer a vast range of services — from the provision of quality and tested seeds to farmers’ advisory services on plant breeding, protection and marketing. Like Tata Salt, one may look forward to Tata Tur emerging a household brand.

Welcome initiative

vibhu nair
Vibhu Nair, director, Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water bodies Restoration and Management (IAMWARM) project, is sepearheading the TN pulses programme initiative.

The speed with which this ace marketeer works was on display as he took the message to Tamil Nadu. Vibhu Nair, director, Tamil Nadu’s IAMWARM project, who attended the Indian Merchants' Chamber Agri Meet in Mumbai in September, invited Gopalkrishnan to participate in a workshop on pulses attended by experts, including those from the World Bank, the Agriculture Department and the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. Nair explained that the focus of the pulses mission would be on technology, productivity and marketing. He pointed to pulses being raised either as a rainfed crop or as a rice fallow crop. The area under pulses in the state is 4 lakh ha (in India overall it is around 23 mn ha). Yield levels in Tamil Nadu are just around 340kg / ha, about half of that of India in general and a third of that in well-managed farms. Nair pointed to little genetic improvement, the non-availability of quality seeds and inconsistent productivity.

“It is a bonus crop; water availability is not assured, post-harvest handling and storage facilities are poor and there is a vast difference between farm gate (Rs35–40 per kg) and retail (Rs75 per kg) prices.” Nair expressed the hope that corporate involvement will help bridge this difference in prices. He invited the Tatas to join hands with the government in an intense effort to encourage the cultivation of pulses in the districts of Pudukkottai and Vellore.

little change

T-V Somanathan, secretary (Monitoring) to the TN chief minister , welcomed the private initiative to procure and market the crop. S Ramasundaram, commissioner and special secretary PWD, pointed out that, per unit of production, pulses required a fifth of the water of paddy. Thus, switching to pulses will help the water-starved state move away from water-intensive crops.


V Shankar, managing director, assisted by Dr S Mallikarjunappa, Dy GM–R&D, Rallis India, offered to join hands with the Tamil Nadu government initiative to expand production of pulses in the state.

Over two decades ago, IE suggested that Tamil Nadu should move away from the water-intensive crops of paddy and sugarcane. In a presentation at the Madras Institute of Development Studies under the chairmanship of Malcolm Adiseshaiah, this writer pointed to the state losing its importance as a producer of agricultural products, its rank dropping from 6th to 12th. In the subsequent two decades, the share of agriculture in the state's gross domestic product has fallen and is presently around 14 per cent. Despite the state spending large amounts on agriculture and allied services, the growth rate has been dismal, at just around 1 per cent per annum. IE has been suggesting that the state focus on pulses, oilseeds and horticulture products and cited the success achieved by Maharashtra and Gujarat through such a focus.

IE is thus happy that the present initiative will focus on the production the pulses. The close association of ICRISAT/World Bank, TNAU and the Tatas holds rich promise.
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