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Raising India’s ‘pulse’ rate

With a focused and integrated approach, India has the potential to produce more than double the current output of pulses, say Pratik Kadakia and Jeffry Jacob of Tata Strategic Management Group

A lot has been written about the sharp rise in pulse prices over the past few months. The government, too, has announced several measures to control prices. While these short-term measures may succeed in controlling the prices to some extent, we need to take a long-term perspective if we are serious about developing a sustainable solution to this issue.

Pulses, or ‘daal,’ are an integral part of the average Indian meal. A large proportion of the Indian population is vegetarian, and pulses form the main source of protein. The protein content in pulses is about 18–25 per cent. This makes pulses one of the cheapest sources of protein for human consumption. However, the per capita domestic production of pulses has declined from 60g / day in 1970–71 to 36g / day in 2007–08. This, despite India being the largest producer of pulses in the world, with 25 per cent of total production, 30 per cent of total consumption and 32 per cent of global acreage under pulses. The productivity of pulses in India has been very low, at 638kg / ha, compared to best-in-class yields of about 1,900kg / ha in Canada and the US.

The World Health Organization recommends 80g / capita / day of pulse consumption for India. Based on expected population growth, India will require about 38 million tonnes of pulses by 2017–18 to avoid protein deficiency. Considering the current domestic production levels (15.11 million tonnes in 2007–08), there is a huge gap that needs to be addressed if India has to be self-sufficient in pulses. If India has to meet the above projected demand, it would have to either double its acreage at current yield levels or double the yield while keeping acreage constant. Since either of the above may not be feasible in isolation, the country needs to look at a combination of both.

There are several reasons why pulses have not received the attention they deserve. Pulses in India are considered a residual crop and grown under rainfed conditions in marginal / less fertile lands with almost no focus on pest and nutrient management. Heavy weed infestation, blue bull and pests destroy over 30 per cent of standing crops before harvesting. In addition, there are post-harvest losses during storage due to attacks by the pulse beetle. This has resulted in pulses being considered a risky crop by farmers and yield levels being amongst the lowest in the world.

potential for pulses smll
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Best practices in pulses
Tata Strategic Management Group recently
undertook a study in the area of pulses and
looked at some of the best practices prevalent
in other countries; some of the important
observations of the study are:

Market development and ensuring profitability
Pulse growers' associations in the US and Canada focus on developing newer markets (eg animal feed, food ingredient industry). Governments ensure easy access to credit, including providing non-recourse market assistance loans.
Promoting good agronomic practices
Pulse growers' associations in Canada educate farmers on timely seeding, fertilisation and pest control for every crop cycle. Mechanised harvesting, the usage of high-yield-variety (HYV) seeds and recommended seed replacement practices are followed.
Focus on R&D
Investment in research is made by the government and through growers’ levies collected from pulse producers. High-yielding varieties and short-duration crops suitable for local conditions are developed and popularised.
Increasing area
Fallow substitution in irrigated lands has resulted in increased production in several countries.
Improving efficiencies through aggregation
Pulse growers' associations help realise economies of scale along the value chain, leading to better adoption of technology and infrastructure.

Potential to grow more
India has the potential to increase acreage by encouraging the production of pulses in rice fallows (see figure). A substantial part of rice fallow land can be targeted for cultivation of pulses during the rabi season. Intercropping and growing short-duration varieties between Kharif and rabi season, by relay cropping and intercropping, ensures the further utilisation of existing agricultural land. The replacement of upland paddy with pulses is another viable option that has the potential to give better net returns to farmers.

India’s yield can be brought to world-class levels through a mix of good agronomic practices and farmer education. The use of HYV seeds has the potential to increase yields by 25–35 per cent. Inoculation of seeds with Rhizobium bacteria results in better nitrogen fixation and improves yields. Improving the seed replacement ratio and ensuring the timely availability of certified seeds would further increase production.

Proper pest and nutrient management are very important levers to increase the production of any crop. Appropriate nutrients, such as sulphur, zinc and phosphorus, help in improving plant biomass for pulses and result in better yields. Currently, only 15 per cent of the total area under pulses is irrigated, compared to an average of 46 per cent for food grains in general. Providing scheduled and controlled irrigation increase yield. Irrigation requirements for pulses are much lower than those for other crops and could be provided through sprinklers, etc.

Pulses need to be stored at optimum humidity conditions to prevent post-harvest losses due to attacks by the pulse beetle. These insects mainly attack whole grains and not split pulses. By shortening the cycle time from harvesting to milling and storing pulses in split form, these losses can be drastically reduced.

By extending crop insurance to pulses in an effective manner, farmers would stop seeing pulses as a risky crop. Providing efficient sourcing mechanisms will provide the farmer with security on assured off-take, which could further encourage farmers to grow more pulses.

Considering the measures listed above, India has the potential to produce over 37 million tonnes of pulses. If India desires to achieve its true potential in pulse production, we need a focused and integrated approach to address these barriers.

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