People were yet to recover from high prices of onion when prices of pulses, especially tur and urad, started skyrocketing and these pulses are being sold now at more than Rs. 200 per kg. Prices of pulses have remained high for the past many years and now they have gone beyond the reach of the poor. Prices of pulses have increased by more than 40 per cent in the last one year. Even the Finance Minister concedes that inflation has cooled down, except for onion and pulses. With prices of pulses shooting up, the government has hurriedly ordered for imports and has also created a fund of Rs 500 crore to compensate for transport and processing of imported pulses.
India has the distinction of being the largest consumer of pulses in the world; however we are not self-sufficient in the production of pulses in the country and therefore import large quantities every year. Pulses are important, not merely because of food habits of the people but because they are an essential nutrient for the masses, especially those who depend on vegetarian food. By providing required protein, pulses make our diet balanced. However skyrocketing prices are throwing not just family budgets out of gear, but even disturbing the diet balance.
It is notable that whereas incomes of people and demand for pulses has increased manifold, increase in production of pulses has not kept pace. In 1960-61, production of pulses in the country was 13 million tons which has increased to 19 million tons (less than a 50 per cent increase in 53 years). The major reason for this is stagnant per hectare productivity, with nearly no expansion in area under pulses cultivation.
In 1964-65 per hectare productivity was 520 kg per hectare, which increased to only 760 kg in 2013-14. Contrast this with wheat where per hectare productivity increased from 910 kg to 3030 kg during the same period. This imbalanced growth led to decline in the per capita availability of pulses from nearly 70 gram in the early 1960s to 42 grams now. Decline in per capita availability of pulses has been posing a serious challenge to the poor man’s food basket.
The easiest way to tackle shortages and inflationary trends in any commodity is to import it. Pulses are no exception to this rule, and we have been importing pulses and edible oils on a large scale from abroad merely to fill the demand-supply gap and cool down inflation. The result is that the nation has got dependent on imported pulses and edible oils.
While it is true that India exports agri-products on a large scale including rice, tea, coffee, tobacco and spices, dependence on imports has also been rising fast with respect to edible oils and pulses. While in 2005-06, India imported $0.56 billion worth of pulses, in 2014-15 the import bill touched $2.8 billion.
The international price of 'Tur' and 'Moong' is nearly Rs 80 per kg now and if we add transportation and handling, the price would go far higher. Given the need to conserve foreign exchange, and ever rising domestic demand, import of pulses on such a large scale cannot be justified. It is notable that whereas demand for pulses rises by 4.2 per cent annually, domestic production is nearly stagnant. Therefore we need to raise domestic production of pulses. The government also concedes that we have a shortage of 3.5 million tons of pulses annually, for which we may have to evolve a strategy to raise production at home. According to people's preferences and food habits, there is a dire need to make pulses available to fulfill protein requirements. To fulfill needs of 128 crore people, we cannot depend on foreign sources. Therefore there is urgent need to raise production of pulses in the country.
History tells us that assured minimum support prices for wheat and rice helped raise the production of these cereals in the country. Farmers in India can produce any quantity of agricultural products, provided they are given remunerative prices.
Today per hectare productivity of wheat is four times that of pulses, therefore if we give minimum support price of Rs. 1500 per quintal for wheat, legitimately we can provide minimum support price for different pulses, depending upon variance in the per hectare productivity vis-a-vis wheat (ranging from two to five times). This way we can promote domestic production of pulses.
It is notable that the international price of 'Tur' is Rs 80 per kg and the government is compelled to purchase at this price. Promotion of domestic production of pulses will go a long way towards improving the condition of farmers, provide natural protein to people and cool down prices.
It is unfortunate that in the last 50 years and notwithstanding the 'green revolution', pulses remained neglected. We can provide better seeds, irrigation and other agricultural inputs to help increase production.