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Pulses: India's abject failure - Outside View by S.S. TARAPORE

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Pulses: India's abject failure
Jul 27, 2015

Pulses are the main form of protein for the masses, yet it is no secret that per capita consumption of pulses has shown a secular decline from 70 grams per day in 1961 to 30 grams in 2001; thereafter it rose to 43 grams in 2011 and has stagnated since then. Given that there would be skewed consumption across the income strata, there must be large tracts of the population which just cannot afford to buy pulses. With all the fancy data coming out about how deep is the penetration of cell phones in the rural areas, surely we need to give importance to what proportion of the population goes without any protein content in their consumption. It does not need a skilled medical practitioner to tell us that without any protein content in the diet, child development would be stunted. Of course, an elitist response would be that after all, there can be consumption of protein other than pulses- a Marie Antoinette approach. Such a callous approach is close to being criminal.

Some basic facts about the pulse economy

Pulses are cultivated on non-irrigated land and by marginal farmers. For decades after Independence, there was no support price for pulses and when support prices were introduced, they were extremely low and not in any way related to market prices. The average annual production of pulses during 2001-2010 was 13.5 million tonnes. With the advent of improved support prices and the Technology Mission for pulses, there was an improvement in output to 18 million tonnes in 2011. But thereafter, output of pulses has been fluctuating.

Import of pulses in 2014-15 is estimated at 4.5 million tonnes. Yoginder K. Alagh, a noted Indian Economist, raises a crucial issue that the authorities think of imports after prices of pulses reach Rs 100 per kilogram. He argues that there should be an import price-linked subsidy to farmers which would spur production in India (Hindu Business Line, July 4, 2015). It is not as if one is prescribing inward looking policies.

The fact is that a number of varieties of pulses consumed in India are just not produced in other countries. Quite apart from support prices, unlike in the case of wheat and rice where there are huge public sector stocks, there is no procurement of pulses. If the government were to bring down public sector wheat and rice stocks by a tiny fraction, it would suffice to release funds for procurement and distribution of pulses. There is a strong case for distribution of pulses at very low prices to meet the protein deficiency which is alarming in the Below Poverty Line segment of the population.

Need for paradigm shift in policies

The alarming crisis of pulses calls for a de novo thinking of the present policies by using a radically different approach. There is a need for a holistic policy to attack the problem of protein deficiency. The Indian Institute of Pulses Research (Kanpur) estimates demand for pulses in 2024-25 at 25 million tonnes; this appears to be a gross underestimate. In view of under-consumption of proteins at the present time, and the rise in pulses consumption as income levels rise, it may be necessary to have the availability of pulses of around 30 million tonnes by 2024-25. What could be the ingredients of a new policy on pulses?

Large subsidies on production of pulses

The present cultivation of pulses is by small marginal farmers. If there is a quantum jump in incentives for pulses, and a combination of input subsidies (in kind) as also an outright assurance of remunerative prices on procurement, there would be a shift from other crops to pulses. The fashions of the time may caution against subsidies but the unusually acute problem needs unusual remedies.

Corporatisation in pulses

The land which is presently uncultivated could be provided to corporates willing to undertake production of pulses. There is adequate technology to make the desert bloom and there should be concerted efforts to encourage corporate investment in pulses.

Expansion of soybean output

While considerable effort has been made to increase output of soybean, our best efforts have just not been enough. Soybean is a surprisingly adaptable plant which fixes its own nitrogen from the air. More importantly, soybean has a neutral taste and can be textured to adapt to different taste preferences. Way back in the early 1960s, the Soybean Association of America sent out a young enthusiastic Indian to try and build bridges with Indian industry to undertake corporatisation of soybean production in India.

Unfortunately, these seminal ideas could make no headway in a milieu where the authorities were clamping down on foreign investment and also restraining private sector expansion. The young Indian was none other than the Indian Management Guru Pramod Batra, whose leitmotiv has been -"Think, there must be a better way." If, in the next ten years, India is able to rectify its greatest failure, it would only be appropriate to salute Pramod Batra.

Please Note: This article was first published in The Freepress Journal on July 27, 2015. Syndicated.

This column, Common Voice is authored by Savak Sohrab Tarapore. Mr. Tarapore, is an economist and he runs his own Multi-Language Syndicated Column. Mr. Tarapore's other column, which appears in The Hindu Business Line, is titled Maverick View.

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