A hitherto humble element of the common man’s diet is now going inexorably out of reach. Prices of all varieties of pulses are skyrocketing to the tune of 100-160 per cent compared to prices a year ago. With arhar dal prices crossing the psychological barrier of Rs 200 per kg, the Central government has gone on an overdrive to somehow retrieve the situation. It has invoked the Essential Commodities Act against traders and stockists, setting limits on stocking pulses to warehouses, dal mills and large retailers. Thousands of raids have been launched against hoarders across the country, with nearly 75,000 tonnes of pulses already seized in 13 states. The Union Consumer Affairs ministry says it will offload the seized pulses in the market to bring down prices. A committee has been constituted to monitor the situation, exports of pulses have been banned, futures and forwards trading in the pulses market have been suspended. Plans have been drawn up to import 7,000 tonnes of arhar dal, its import duty already reduced to zero. New Delhi has asked state governments to talk to food processers, whole-sellers and retailers to make pulses available at reasoble prices.
In Assam, where the civil supplies department has long been adopting a soft line towards unscrupulous traders, black-marketers and illegal syndicates cornering markets, where hapless consumers have been left to fend for themselves — it would be expecting too much for Dispur to do anything effective about the pulses situation. Retailers in Guwahati are selling masur dal at Rs 100-110, mung dal at Rs 125, maati dal at Rs 160 and arhar dal at Rs 180; however, the price of arhar dal has already hit Rs 225 in markets from Barpeta to gaon and beyond. The pressure on common household budgets can well be imagined. In the ongoing Bihar polls, dal prices is already an issue. Unless the situation is redressed soon, it will surely figure when states like Assam, West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil du go for assembly elections next year. In all likelihood, the prices of pulses are unlikely to come down substantially anytime soon. It is, after all, the outcome of a systemic problem that has been several years in the making. The country at present is consuming about 230 lakh tonnes of pulses a year, which is a very important source of proteins in the poor man’s diet. But despite being the world’s largest producer of pulses, India is producing substantially less than its requirement. The year 2014-15 was particularly bad due to draught and unseasol rains. Major pulses producing states like Maharashtra, Kartaka and Madhya Pradesh were hard hit, bringing down the country’s pulse production by 12 per cent from 190 lakh tonnes to 174 lakh tonnes. And because India is the world’s largest consumer of pulses, other exporters like Cada, Australia, Chi and Myanmar have taken advantage of the shortfall here to hike prices.
The current drive against ‘hoarders and black marketers’ in the country have been criticised by experts as a knee-jerk reaction since importers, who are mostly private operators, import pulses in bulk of several thousand tonnes after harvest — which then have to be stored, processed and sold in the market throughout the year. It has been pointed out that if stocks are reduced by government diktat, market prices of pulses in the months immediately after harvest would collapse, which would further discourage farmers from growing them in the subsequent season. In case traders try to rig the pulses market, agencies like the Competition Commission can always be unleashed. However, the government’s move to build a 40,000-tonne buffer stock of pulses at a cost of Rs 400 crore is being hailed as a step in the right direction, though experts believe the stock should be around 25-30 lakh tonnes to be effective in arresting price swings.
If raising domestic production is the permanent solution, the question still remains why farmers are turning their backs to growing pulses despite its high prices. Back in 1971, the total farming area under pulses in the country was 2.25 crore hectare, which increased fractiolly to only 2.47 crore hectare by 2014-15. In northern India, pulse production has been going down in states like UP and Rajasthan, while almost stopping in Punjab, Harya and Himachal Pradesh. In peninsular and southern states, pulses are mostly grown on margil lands with low yields. The risks are high, with crops susceptible to diseases. Pulse farmers have long been a neglected lot, getting no irrigation, fertiliser and power support. State governments compound the problem further by poorly executing minimum support price (MSP) schemes for farmers. Experts warn that until and unless pulse farmers are treated on par with farmers of rice, wheat and sugarcane, the country’s efforts to bridge the growing supply-demand gap in pulses will simply not succeed.