Checking the Pulse of India’s Dal Farmers

The question to ask is whether it makes environmental sense or effects social justice to ship our dals from across the seas?

An import-driven strategy for pulses will not work. Credit: Reuters

An import-driven strategy for pulses will not work. Credit: Reuters

Pulses — that group of legume crops which includes chickpeas, cowpeas, moong beans, red kidney beans, urad beans, lentils and diverse grams. No matter what your personal choice of dal is though, India is probably eating many if not most of them. But as the world’s largest consumer of pulses, Indians need to be concerned about issues other than simply what they cost at any given point of time. We need to be aware of both the global architecture as well as our own local conditions of pulses and pulse growers, and much more.

Global actors

The Global Pulse Confederation (GPC), headquartered in Dubai and formerly the International Pulse Trade and Industry Confederation (IPTIC), represents the global pulse industry value chain. Its members hold the annual Global Pulse Convention. While its members more than 600 are mostly private seed companies, GPC encourages national pulse associations to “become part of a mega movement to promote pulses (nutritional crop which helps fight, world hunger and climate change”). It’s easy to market the idea to governments that have to deal with starving or malnourished populations.

It was the negotiations of the GPC since 2011, which first got the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to pass a resolution to declare 2016 as the International Year of Pulses (IYP). FAO then got the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to declare IYP 2016. Hakan Bahceci, CEO of Hakan Foods and the then head of GPC, was in 2013 elected as the chairperson of the private sector mechanism (PSM) at the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) in Rome. At that same gathering in FAO in Rome, FAO ,embers approved the strategy for partnerships with the private sector. FAO has been tasked to facilitate the implementation of the IYP 2016. Bahceci, the previous head of GPC, now represents the pulse industry on FAO’s International Steering Committee of IYP 2016.

Research agenda

Apart from the trade and diplomacy angle, the GPC has called for pulses to be prioritised in future agronomic research programmes. It feels that the Green Revolution focus on paddy and wheat was at the cost of pulses. The industry would like to correct the bias for cereals.

The architecture for international agricultural R&D has been harnessed for this purpose. The CGIAR Consortium, largely funded by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is at the heart of research activities on legumes. One of its centres – ICARDA, is responsible for work on dryland crops including pulses.  

ICARDA launched the Global Pulse Research Platform in February 2016 outside Bhopal in the Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. This will be a platform for collaborative research with ICAR institutes and State Agricultural Universities in India; thus the national R&D agenda is set, though not in a bottom-up way.

Another CGIAR Centre in India – ICRISAT, which is responsible for the CGIAR Research Program on Grain legumes, helps to market pulses as a ‘smart food’.

Under its auspices, transgenic pulses research for genetically modified (GM) chickpea is underway in ICRISAT itself and for GM pigeon pea at the ICAR’s Indian Institute for Pulses Research, Kanpur. Meanwhile, the India Pulses and Grain Association (IPGA) has signed an MoU with ICRISAT to increase the yield and production of pulses. This is reminiscent of the Green Revolution model, with its focus on productivity.

Import friendly

Where there are imports, there are ports. Adani Ports and Special Economic Zone (APSEZ) is India’s largest port developer with ports and terminals off the coasts in Gujarat, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. In October 2015, the Adani Group signed an MoU with IPGA to handle pulses at all its ports. Adani Wilmar Limited, India’s 6th largest food company, markets the ‘Fortune’ brand of pulses. Other big businesses, such as Tata Chemicals and Rallis India have initiated a GrowMorePulses Campaign to promote the cultivation of pulses in India.

Even government programmes, like National Food Security Mission make it easier for private companies to expand their own outreach. It is beginning to become clear that like any other crop in the agro-industrial model, the current push for pulses is only going to create more space for products and technologies from large corporations. The usual big names are there, such as DuPont’s in pulse crop protection products like insecticides.

Government focus

The government’s targeted pulses production is 20.75 million tonnes (mt) for 2016-17 to meet local demand (which is estimated at 25 mt annually). The FCI is also to procure more pulses including through imports, to set up the buffer stock. As per the Ministry of Agriculture, the pulse estimates are:

Year/(In mt) Production Total Imports Availability

(C = A+B)



Availability for Domestic Consumption


2015-2016 17.06 5.79 22.85 0.25 22.60
2016-2017 17.82 4.76 22.49 0.27 22.22

The price the government buys at directly affects farmers and prices for ‘target’ consumers. On 1 June, the CCEA gave its approval to give a bonus, over and above the recommendations of the CACP, to incentivise cultivation of pulses. This will be Rs.425/- per quintal for 2016-17 kharif pulses. The Minimum Support Price (MSP)  including the said bonus with effect from 1 October 2016 will be:

  • Moong      Rs.5,255
  • Tur (Arhar) Rs.5,050
  • Urad      Rs.5,000

However, farmers have always argued that since the costs of production vary across the different pulse-growing states in the country, a uniform price does not work. In any case, farmer leaders will have to move their demands and with it the discourse beyond mere MSP for pulses and other crops. Given that only 6% of the country’s farmers are even getting MSP. Also, looking at how global trade rules are going both at the WTO and in the new generation of free trade agreements (FTAs), agricultural subsidies may not remain a policy option to support farmers.  

Overseas connections

In June 2016 a panel under the Finance Minister cleared pulse imports from Myanmar and African countries. It was also decided that a high-level committee would visit the pulse-producing countries and deliberate on imports. Duty-free imports

The highlight of Prime Minister Modi’s Africa visit has been the dal deal he has struck with Mozambique, to buy 1 lakh tonne of pulses annually. Other African countries are also keen to become net food-exporting countries.

Most of our pulse imports come from developed countries like Australia and Canada. Their pulse exports and our import bills rise when our monsoon fails. Moreover, these countries like USA prefer to cater to high-end value-added markets. Their prices cannot offer lasting solutions for our domestic needs.

The question to ask is if it makes either climate sense or effects social justice to ship our dals from across the seas?

The national climate action plan for agriculture has to in the long term address the issue of imports of pulses. The UN sustainable development goals cannot be met if food systems are not made more sustainable. India is represented in the IYP international steering committee, which meets every month. And the FAOs’ IYP action plan is meant to emphasise the role pulses play as part of sustainable food production.

People’s pulse

The pulse growers on the ground — the farmers, certainly don’t get as much attention as the pulse itself is now getting; even though as per the FAO, over 90% of pulses world over are grown by family farmers. While they may grow the dals, they certainly have less say in the global strategy, let alone national plans for pulses.

The government has to read and respond to the pulse of the nation’s discontent — both local consumers and our small producers. The committee on pulses under the government’s chief economic adviser set up to take a long-term view has to lay the foundations for strengthening local production. It has to reduce the reliance on trade for food needs.

This will entail re-localising our food production and supporting local beans. Traditional legumes can reinvigorate farmers’ agriculture, including their innovation. This would be food sovereignty as people envision it. The possibilities it offers are extraordinary.

The author is a legal researcher & policy analyst working on agriculture-related issues in the Asia region.