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Blame imports for India's pulses inflation

By Sreekumar Raghavan
November 17, 2009

With tur, urad and moong prices surging, India is now importing more quantities of cheaper yellow peas from Canada where it is used mainly for animal feed and hence the lower prices. An article in Economic Times Blog pointed out that yellow peas would have the same status in the Indian kitchens just as imported Palm Oil acquired rising importance beating all other edible oils. While importing commodities may help to temporarily tide over a demand-supply gap, it cannot be seen as a long-term solution.

When we probe further, it can be understood that the green revolution bypassed the pulses. It had more to do with increasing productivity of rice and wheat which is visible from the data from 1951-2008. In 1950-51, the total acreage for wheat was 9.75 mn hectares, production 6.46 mn tonnes and productivity 663 kg per hectare, however these figures improved over the years due to adoption of high yielding varieties. Productivity climbed to 851 kg per ha in 1960-61 reaching 2281 kg per ha in 1990-91 and by 2007-08 soared to 2785 kg per ha with a production of 78.40 mn tonnes and acreage at 28.15 mn ha.

A similar revolution was seen in rice whose acreage was 30.81 mn ha in 1950-51 with production at 20.58 mn tonnes and yield at 668 kg/ha. With the use of HYV seeds, productivity rose to 1013 by 1960, 1123 in 1970’s, 1336 in 1980’s and 1740’s in 1990’s and 2203 by 2007-08 with acreage rising to just 43.77 mn ha and production at 96.43 mn tonnes. A tremendous achievement compared to the 1950’s when the nation depended on supplies from US to meet its food grain demand.

Pulses sector on the other hand has lagged behind on all counts. The acreage of pulses was 19.09 mn ha in 1950-51 with production at 8.51 mn and yield at 441 kg per ha.

In 1966-67, acreage marginally rose to 22.12 but productivity fell to 377 kg/ha.By 1979-80, yield was 385 kg/ha although acreage rose to 22.26 mn ha and production marginally rose to 8.57 mn tonnes. By mid-90’s, the productivity climbed upto 610 kg but acreage remained more or less same at 23.03 and latest available figures for 2007-08 shows acreage at 23.86 mn ha, production at 15.12 mn ha and productivity at 638.

M S Swaminathan, leading agricultural scientist and Member of Parliament in a recent lecture organized by Rajya Sabha pointed out that “There are new technologies which can help enhance the yield of dryland crops like pulses and oilseeds by 200 to 300 percent. The country’s imports of pulses are increasing , while there is a great scope to produce in the rainfed areas the pulses and oilseeds we need.”

Imagine what would have been the plight of the nation if it did not increase food production through technology interventions and extension work in the fields that ushered in the green revolution with help from Norman Borlaug who brought dwarf varieties of wheat seeds from Mexico. However, with pulses the nation seems to have been complacement as there was always the import market to support but available data indicate that per capita protein intake through pulses is declining over the years as higher prices force consumers to buy less of tur, urad and moong dal.

The reason why “Cobweb Theorem” is not working in the case of pulses is evident from the comparison of productivity data between pulses, wheat and rice. When wheat and rice productivity has risen three to six-fold, pulses yield is lagging behind, a major possible reason why farmers are shying away from it. Given a chance a farmer would go for any crop other than pulses as it would provide more yield and monetary returns.

In 2008, when food grain prices rose, effort was to put entire blame on rising consumption in India and China. “The corn-ethanol push comes at a time when the food industry is dealing with its own changing dynamics, triggered by a burgeoning middle class in China and India who are eating more grain-fed meat,” business journalist Kevin Morrison wrote in his famous book, Living in a Material World, The Commodity Connection.

What the industrialized world is perhaps signaling to emerging nations like India is the fact that if you want more food, you must as well raise your output and productivity just as it did with the green revolution and white revolution. The OECD nations have the subsidies and the new ethanol rush to support farmers. But our poor pulses farmer doesn’t have the technology, seeds or the resources to gain from positive market fundamentals.

To be fair to agricultural institutions, in recent times, some new varieties of pigeon pea and inter/mixed cropping along with cotton and oilseeds have been initiated. But this should have begun long time back and the decision to bring in 4 million additional hectares under pulses through National Food Security Mission programme should be welcomed but only increased use of hybrids can improve productivity and returns to farmers.

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