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Going against the grain

Pulses provide a significant part of India’s nutritional needs. Yet India’s production of pulses has remained stagnant, making the country increasingly dependent upon imports. This article by Gayatri Kamath examines the several constraints and challenges that face pulse cultivators in India

Come June every year, most Indian farmers look to the sky for signs of rain. In India, the weather gods can be benign and rain bounty or turn tail and wreck havoc on crops and fields. The process of growing and cultivating crops has always been overshadowed by the looming spectre of risk.

For centuries now, Indian farmers have adopted pulse cultivation as a traditional way of mitigating this risk. Pulses are sown along with a primary crop (wheat, cereal, oil seeds or cotton) so that if some factor were to affect the main crop — a pest or disease infection, a tardiness on the part of the rain gods, a drop in the support price of wheat or cotton, etc, there is always the income from the pulse crop to fall back on.

These past few decades have seen production of wheat, rice and cotton rising steadily, thanks to strong support prices and subsidies from the government, and the liberal inputs of high-yield seeds, fertiliser and pesticides. Yet the domestic production of pulses has increased slowly and has been outstripped by the growing demand for pulses. India produced 12.7 million tonnes of pulses in 1960–61; this figure peaked at 15.1 million tonnes in 2007–08, but domestic consumption in 2007–08 was over 18 million tonnes. Over the years, India has become increasingly dependent on pulse imports.

Fields and grassroots
The low rates of pulse production in India can be traced to low yields per acre and the low acreage under pulses. There are several reasons why pulse production has not grown in India. Some of these are historic, and most can be directly traced to the poor connection between new research and development and the practitioner out in the field. Yet all these constraints are easily addressed. The challenges can be categorised as follows:

Agroclimatic (Land and rain)
Biological (Pest and disease)
Socio-economic (Risk and revenue)
Knowledge-based (Research and information)
Infrastructural (Government and community)

In India, pulses have traditionally been grown on non-irrigated, rainfed land. Only 15 per cent of pulses are grown under irrigation (as compared to 46 per cent of other food grains). Farmers sow pulse seeds in the monsoon months and leave the rest to nature. The crop is negatively affected by heavy rains, as the seeds undergo moisture stress, and cold weather causes the flowers and pods to drop.

Pulse crops are legumes; that is, they bear pods containing seeds. The flowers and pods are extremely prone to heavy infestations of weeds, pests and diseases that are unique to legumes. Pod borer, pod fly, sterility and mosaic viruses, and wilt are the most common infestations, destroying as much as 30 per cent of the standing crop each year. Post-harvesting losses are also high, with moisture and storage pests such as pulse beetles damaging the seeds.

The single biggest factor affecting pulse production is the fact that pulse yields are much lower than other food crops. At 638kg a hectare, India’s pulses yield is far below that of best-in-class countries (USA, Canada), which produce about 1,800kg a hectare.

Over the years, rice and wheat yields have improved two-fold (and even three-fold in the case of wheat) as a result of government schemes and the green revolution effect that has brought better seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, support prices, subsidies, etc within the ambit of farmers. Yet pulse crop yields have remained at a level of only 5–6 quintals per acre, very low compared to those of rice (33 q/acre) or cotton (12 q/acre). Little wonder then that most farmers focus on growing crops where returns are higher.

There seems to be a yawning gap between what is achievable in pulse production and the grassroots reality. Agricultural research in India has produced several high-yield varieties (HYV) of pulse seeds that can improve yields two-fold and are of shorter duration, thus allowing farmers to grow two or even three crops in a year. Drought-tolerant and disease-tolerant seeds are being developed that cut risk considerably. Proper seed-treatment and crop-protection techniques are available that can control disease and pest infestation. Changes in cropping patterns (sowing three crops in a year, intercropping two crops, etc) can dramatically improve farm revenues while positively impacting soil quality and reducing the need for chemical fertilisers.

This knowledge has yet to be internalised by the farming community in the same manner as has  happened with other food and cash crops. There has been poor dissemination of knowledge and research between the academic world and the practitioners of pulse cultivation.

What pulse farmers in India lack are strong local communities that can work together in several ways to benefit the participants by accomplishing the following:

Pooling resources and information
Developing seed banks for quality seeds
Setting aside areas for quality seed production
Identifying new lands that are fallow and can be brought under pulse cultivation
Propagating the benefits of intercropping and multiple cropping
Spreading awareness of the nitrogen-fixation benefit of pulse crops
Developing micro-credit and crop insurance schemes, and so on.

The government has taken the first step towards strengthening pulse cultivation by setting up several initiatives under the Ministry of Agriculture: a technology mission for oilseeds, pulses and maize, a national pulses development project, and a national food security mission. But what is needed is the creation of local pulse growers' associations that can build knowledge bases and resources.

The need for support
Pulse crops are environmentally sustainable and have a positive impact on the land. Growing on non-irrigated land, they use less water. With a natural ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and thereby increase the nitrogen content of the soil, they reduce the need for fertilisers and enhance the arable quality of the soil. They also mitigate global warming by lowering the levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the air. Pulses are 18–24 per cent protein, thus providing India’s population with an alternative to animal-based protein (meat, eggs, and milk).

By increasing acreage under pulses, and improving pulse crop yields, India can achieve self-sufficiency in pulses and reduce its import bill. For this, pulse farmers in India need support from two different sources: 1) the government, in the form of subsidies, inputs, access to quality seeds, information and price support, and 2) the research community, in the form of credible information, new techniques, new seed varieties, etc.

By supporting pulse cultivation, India not only works towards averting a shortage crisis in pulses, it also builds domestic food capability and reduces the agricultural community’s dependence on crops that require high inputs of water, nutrition and protection. This has to be India’s second green revolution, long overdue.

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