Self-sufficiency in pulses in sight, but high duties not the solution in oilseeds

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her budget speech that we have become self-sufficient in pulses and we should achieve the same in oilseeds. Photo: Pixabay

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her budget speech that we have become self-sufficient in pulses and we should achieve the same in oilseeds. Yes, there has been a step-up in the production of pulses over the past three years to an average of 24 million tonnes. But the demand is about 32 million tonnes. The gap is met by imports. Narendra Pratap Singh, Director of the Indian Institute of Pulses Research, Kanpur, says we are moving “towards” self-sufficiency in pulses; we are not there yet.

It is true that the government was galvanized into action after prices shot up in 2015-16 because of shortages caused by bad weather. Pigeonpea (tur) sold for Rs 8,798 a quintal wholesale towards the end of 2015, nearly double the price prevailing in the last quarter of 2014. That of backgram (urad) rose 80 per cent between the two periods. Chickpea or chana was less affected but its price at Rs 8,553 a quintal at the end of 2016 was 87 per cent higher than in the last quarter of 2015.

With consumers getting restive, the government set up seed hubs in 150 pulses-growing districts. Central agricultural research institutes and state agricultural universities stepped up production of breeder seeds. These were multiplied (into foundation and certified seeds) by seed corporations and extension agencies called KVKs for sale to farmers. Subsidy was given only for less-than-10-year-old seed varieties. These were not only high-yielding but also pest- and disease-resistant. Seed availability persuaded farmers to replace the old with new.

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Earlier, the Manmohan Singh government had taken a series of measures to raise pulses production. Pranab Mukherjee as Finance Minister provided funds for pulses and oilseed villages under the Accelerated Pulses Production Programme (A3P).  It was made part of the National Food Security Mission. There was emphasis on the production of quality seeds.

After the pulses price shock of 2015-16, support prices were increased. They have risen by 46 per cent for chickpea, 52 per cent for mungbean and 30 per cent for pigeonpea over the past five years. The government started procuring pulses. That of pigeonpea rose from 45,000 tonnes in 2015-16, to 9 lakh tonnes the next year. It fell to 2.58 lakh tonnes in 2017-18 as prices moderated. Chickpea procurement by the Centre was a modest 60,000 tonnes in 2017-18 and an equal amount the previous year. But seven states procured 3.64 lakh tonnes of chickpea in 2014-15 under their price support schemes.

Because of these measures, annual pulses production has averaged 23.7 million tonnes in the past three years, an 80 per cent increase over the average of the three-year period ending 2003-04. This was led by chickpea whose share in pulses production is 43 per cent. Its output doubled from 5.14 million tonnes to 10.27 million tonnes during these two periods.

Revolutions in agricultural production are evolutionary, and are a consequence of long years of research. India’s Green Revolution in the mid-1960s resulted in a jump in wheat and rice production but the high-yielding semi-dwarf varieties that were responsive to fertilizers were imported. They were developed respectively at CIMMYT in Mexico and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

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In pulses, India has to depend on its own R&D. The work on chickpea began at ICRISAT, the international agricultural research institute based in Hyderabad, in the 1970s. Chickpea was a long-duration crop that matured in 150 days and thrived in the cold winters of north India. But it was displaced by the Green Revolution in rice and wheat. How ICRISAT together with agricultural institutes in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Kanpur adapted it to the warm weather of southern India, where it is prone to attacks from wilt and pod borers is a story in itself. It took 22 years of research at ICRISAT to win over Andhra farmers to chickpea. The planting material it supplied to universities in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra for local adaptation also boosted production in those states.

Owing to these developments, chickpea has made up for the loss of area in northern India.  In Punjab, the chickpea area, which averaged 3.2 lakh hectares between 1971 and 1980, fell to about 4,400 hectares during 2001-10.  Now, Punjab does not figure among the major chickpea-producing states. At 580,000 hectares, the area in Uttar Pradesh has declined to a third of its 1971-80 level. But the country’s chickpea area of 7.5 million ha during 1971-75 has increased to 8.22 million hectares.

The production of pigeonpea has also doubled ─ from 2.36 million tonnes in 2003-04 to nearly five million tonnes in 2016-17. But it has not stabilised.

The development of a summer variety which matures in 55-60 days has expanded the mungbean area in Punjab and Haryana because of the prohibition on early planting of rice, to conserve groundwater. The crop is grown after wheat and being a legume crop, helps improve soil fertility. Summer mungbean production has doubled over the past 15 years, though the output of the rainy season (Kharif) crop has been declining for much of that period.

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To stabilise prices, higher pulses output will have to be complemented with better storage technologies. Whole pulses don’t keep long. In the presence of moisture, they get infested with bruchids (lice-like pests) called ghun in Hindi. Singh of IIPR recommends low-gamma ray radiation with machines that are used in Kanpur for de-contaminating leather. Pooran Gaur, a chickpea breeder and head of ICRISAT’s India research programme recommends triple layer plastic bags developed by Purdue University of the United States as a low-cost option. The Odisha government has given 60,000 of these bags to farmers in the state this year for storing groundnut. ICRISAT has recommended them for pulses as well.

Achieving self-sufficiency in oilseeds is difficult because palm oil imported from Malaysia and Indonesia is so cheap that even with 100 per cent duty (from 15.5 per cent in 2017), it is still competitive. The import duty on soybean oil is 45 per cent. It was 18 per cent two years ago. Safflower, sunflower and cottonseed oils now attract 100 per cent duty, while mustard and rapeseed oil have a 75 per cent import duty rate.

High duties impose a cost on consumers. Self-sufficiency must be achieved by lowering the cost of production and raising the productivity. This is possible with genetic-modification (GM) technology. But India has not allowed the cultivation of GM mustard developed by a team of Delhi University scientists even though the apex regulator recommended approval in May 2017. This technology permits the development of new mustard hybrids efficiently.

Herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant soybean is grown extensively abroad. These reduce the wage cost of weeding, and the expenditure on pesticides. But India’s laws for protection of intellectual property rights do not give confidence to the developers to bring these technologies to India.

But even without these technologies, India can boost the production of oilseeds, which are often grown in drylands and on poor soils if it assures procurement at higher minimum support prices. Legumes like soybean and groundnut also provide environmental services: they use less water and store atmospheric nitrogen in the soil in the form of root nodules. This reduces dollar bill for imported urea.

The government must work in partnership with the industry. The Solvent Extractors’ Association (SEA) has urged the government to launch Mission Mustard (because it is a high-oil bearing crop with 31-46 per cent oil content. Soybean has 18 per cent oil content) in Punjab and Haryana. In Gujarat, SEA has raised the productivity of castor by providing high-yielding seeds to farmers along with a package of improved cultivation practices in demonstration villages. It is willing to do the same for mustard as well.