Pulses are a vital source of protein for many, particularly the economically disadvantaged section of Indian society. Despite rising demand, domestic supply consistently falls short, contributing significantly to food price inflation. This shortfall is exacerbated by the challenges in importing widely consumed pulses like pigeon pea (Arhar/ Tur), black gram (Urad), and green gram (moong), which are primarily grown in India. 

The core issues include low productivity of current strains, minimal technological advancements, and high susceptibility to pests and diseases. These challenges are compounded by the lack of high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties and the high energy requirements for growing pulses compared to cereals like wheat and rice. 

Pulses are a crucial source of protein for many in India, particularly the poor. However, despite rising demand, domestic production consistently falls short, causing farmers to be hesitant about growing pulses. This reluctance stems from several intertwined issues related to economic viability, agricultural challenges, and market dynamics.

Economic Viability and Returns

Farmers often find pulses less profitable compared to other crops like wheat and rice. Pulses have a lower yield and higher input costs due to their greater energy requirements for grain production. 

Additionally, the risk of crop failure is higher for pulses, making the return on investment uncertain. The minimum support price (MSP) for pulses, though increased significantly in recent years, still does not assure farmers of stable and profitable returns due to market fluctuations and inadequate procurement mechanisms.

Farmers face a cap on their returns from growing pulses, leading to a consistent shortfall in domestic production compared to consumption. Historically, before 2009, India’s annual pulse output rarely exceeded 14.5 million tonnes. 

Despite a peak in imports at around 3.5 million tonnes in 2009-10, domestic production has struggled to keep pace with rising demand. For instance, the retail price of Tur dal rose to over Rs 100 per kg, prompting farmers to increase planting in the subsequent season.

However, despite an increase in domestic output to around 17 million tonnes, the prices received by farmers often do not cover the cost of production. 

In Maharashtra, a major pulse-producing state, tur prices have fallen below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 3,200 per quintal, or Rs 32 per kg, due to rising production costs and a lack of technological advancements.

The market for pulses is highly volatile. Prices can fluctuate widely, and farmers face uncertainty regarding the market prices they can expect at harvest time. Even with MSP increases, the actual market prices often fall below MSP, particularly for crops like Chana. This instability discourages farmers from committing their resources to pulse cultivation.

Agricultural Challenges

The productivity of pulses is notably lower compared to other staple crops. For instance, the yield of Tur dal in India is only 859 kg/ha, significantly lower than in countries like Myanmar. This low productivity is exacerbated by the high vulnerability of pulses to pests and diseases, leading to substantial crop losses.

Modern science has not yet provided effective solutions to these problems, and high-yielding, pest-resistant varieties of pulses are scarce.

There has been minimal technological progress in pulse cultivation. Unlike wheat and rice, where high-yielding germplasm and technological innovations have significantly boosted productivity, pulses have not benefited from similar advancements.

The lack of investment in research and development for pulses, especially in developed countries, further limits the availability of improved seed varieties and farming practices.

Pulses require more energy to produce grains than cereals like wheat and rice. They are also heavily dependent on rainfall, making them a risky choice in areas without reliable irrigation. Farmers in irrigated regions often prefer to grow crops with assured procurement, like paddy, due to the higher and more predictable returns.

The inputs required for pulse cultivation, such as quality seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides, are either costly or not readily available. The higher input costs, coupled with the risk of crop failure further discourage farmers from investing in pulse production.

Government Interventions and Initiatives

In response to the global food crisis of 2005-06, the UPA government launched the NFSM in May 2007, aiming to boost pulse production by 2 million tonnes by the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan in 2011-12. The mission saw success, with production increasing from 14.20 million tonnes in 2006-07 to 17.09 million tonnes in 2011-12. 

However, successive droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16 led to a decline of 2-3 million tonnes compared to 2013-14, causing high inflation during the early years of the first Modi government.

In 2015, a committee led by Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian was formed to review policy interventions for incentivizing pulse cultivation. Several of the committee’s recommendations were implemented, including the continuation of NFSM pulses and substantial increases in the minimum support price (MSP) for pulses. 

Between 2013-14 and 2021-22, the MSP for Kharif pulses like Tur and Urad rose by 46.5%, and for Moong by 61.7%. For Rabi pulses (winter crops), the MSP for chana increased by 68%, and for lentils (Masoor) by 86.4%. These interventions contributed to the increase in pulse production from 19.26 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 27.81 million tonnes in 2022-23.

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Challenges and Recommendations

The government has enhanced allocation under the Price Support Scheme (PSS) and established a Price Stabilisation Fund (PSF) for pulse procurement, peaking at 41.83 lakh tonnes in 2018-19 but dropping to 12.49 lakh tonnes in 2021-22. 

Despite recommendations for significant procurement funding, the 2023-24 budget allocated only a nominal Rs 1 lakh each for PSS and PSF. Effective disposal of procured pulses, which have a shorter shelf life than cereals, remains a challenge, with Nafed often selling stocks below economic cost.

The government allowed pulse exports in November 2017 after domestic prices fell below MSP. Recommendations to remove pulses from the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Acts have seen partial implementation, allowing trade outside APMCs with applicable market fees. Despite this, most trade remains within APMCs due to the lack of extensive physical infrastructure for large-scale trade.

Proposals for a new institution dedicated to pulses, managed by an independent board and involving government, private, and public sectors, have not been accepted. Existing entities like Nafed continue to handle pulse procurement and sales. The Price Stabilization Fund, established in 2015-16, allows government purchases above MSP to stabilise market prices.

Incentivizing pulse production in irrigated areas, particularly in Punjab, has seen limited progress due to the assured procurement of non-basmati paddy. The yield of pulses, notably Tur dal, remains low in India compared to other countries, with India yielding 859 kg/ha versus Myanmar’s nearly double yield. The government’s ambivalence towards genetic modification technology hinders yield improvements.

Future Projections and Strategies

Ashok Gulati, chairman of the National Commission for Agriculture Costs and Prices, notes that these surpluses are due to temporary rises in production driven by previous high prices. This pattern is seen across the country, where farmers shift land to pulses hoping for better returns, only to face inadequate marketing facilities and processing infrastructure.

Consequently, while consumers benefit temporarily from lower prices, long-term production growth suffers.

Gulati suggests that a technological breakthrough in pulse seeds is crucial, as there has been little advancement in this area for the past 30 years. Additionally, he recommends a 30-40% increase in MSP to cover production costs and a 10% import duty to align domestic and local prices. These measures would incentivize farmers to allocate irrigated land for pulses, potentially stabilising production and prices.

The NITI Aayog projects pulse demand to reach 32.64 million tonnes by 2029-30. Their 2017 action agenda highlights the need for a technological breakthrough in pulses and oilseeds. 

Increasing production by 5 million tonnes over the next seven years will require area diversification from rice to pulses in irrigated regions, necessitating policies that ensure remunerative price signals for pulses.

Indian farmers’ reluctance to grow pulses stems from low profitability, agricultural challenges, resource constraints, and inadequate policy support. Addressing these issues requires enhancing technological advancements, improving market stability, providing robust procurement mechanisms, and ensuring better resource management.

Without these changes, consumers will face higher prices, and farmers will continue to struggle with economic viability. To secure a stable supply of pulses, both consumers and policymakers must recognize the need for investment and reform in pulse production.

Image Credits: Google Images

Feature image designed by Saudamini Seth

Sources: Down To Earth, Finshots, Times of India

Find the blogger: Katyayani Joshi

This post is tagged under: farmers, pulses, dal, reluctant, cereals, losses, msp, resource constraints, country, India, Indian farmers, high prices, consumers, policymakers, reforms, pulse production

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