Why Sitharaman’s 'Pulses For All' Promise Still Hasn't Been Implemented

New Delhi: On March 26, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced that the government had decided that all ration card holders in India will be provided one kilogram of pulses every month starting April, for a period of three months. This was a part of the PM Garib Kalyan package – the Centre’s only relief measure so far to deal with the consequences of the lockdown for the poor.

Almost a month later, on April 20, the government issued a press release which once again announced that “it has decided to distribute pulses to the eligible households under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PM-GKY).”

The release also said that the government has so far issued 1,07,077 metric tonnes of pulses to states. “Issued only means issued on paper. It doesn’t mean that they have been shipped to states,” said a former official of the National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED), the government agency which procures pulses and is now in charge of ensuring that these reach states which will eventually distribute them to ration card holders through the public distribution system (PDS).

A report in the Indian Express on Friday said that only 44,932 tonne of pulses have actually been dispatched to states. According to the national food security portal, there are 23.6 crore ration card holders in the country. So, one kilogram of pulses per ration card would mean that 2,36,000 tonnes of pulses are required every month to fulfil Sitharaman’s promise.

For the month of April, therefore, only about 21% of the quantity needed has been sent to states with less than a week of April to go. The quantity distributed by states is far lower, according to the Indian Express report. Only 19,496 tonnes of pulses – or 8.2% – have been distributed by states.

Pulses are of significant nutritional importance in India, where 195 million face chronic nutritional deficiency. India has also slid on the global hunger index from 95th to 102nd rank in 2019 out of a total of 117 countries, with ‘serious’ levels of hunger.

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According to a paper by Suman Chakrabarti, Avinash Kishore and Devesh Roy, pulses occupy a ‘unique place in the Indian diet’ as about 40% of India’s population does not consume meat – a vital source of protein. This is where pulses step in.

“A bulk of non-cereal protein in the Indian diet comes from pulses. So, it’s a vital source of nutrition,” Kishore told The Wire.

Where are the pulses coming from?

The quantity of pulses that the government has decided to distribute to ration card holders is quite small, at one kilogram per household – which translates to only 200 gram per person per month as the average household size in India is close to five.

This is the first time that India is introducing pulses throughout the country as part of the PDS and it assumes importance as the incomes of millions have been wiped out due to the lockdown and they can no longer afford to buy protein sources. However, the Central government has failed to deliver on the promise that was made by Sitharaman on March 26.

For instance, according to the food department of Rajasthan, the state would need 11,000 tonnes of pulses every month to fulfil the promises of the Garib Kalyan package. So far, it has only received 2,000 tonnes from NAFED.

India’s largest state in terms of population, Uttar Pradesh, has only been provided a tenth of what it needs to come good on the promise for the month of April. According to the state’s food and civil supplies department, the state would need 35,000 tonnes of pulses but so far it has only been provided 3,500 tonnes. The state has not distributed any quantities yet to ration card holders.

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Anil Kumar Dubey, additional deputy commissioner (food), UP said, “NAFED is unable to supply the pulses. They were supposed to send pulses, but so far they have only sent some chana.”

The state had earlier hoped to begin distribution of pulses for the month of April on April 27, but that is not going to be possible due to the delay. “Now we are thinking that we will be able to start distribution on May 15. But this is also not certain and will happen only if the stocks arrive from NAFED,” Dubey said. Bear in mind, the distribution now scheduled to begin on May 15 is for the month of April.

The situation is the same across all states in India. The Wire checked with the food departments in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat. Most of the states have not received any stock of pulses, while a few have received some stock but not the entire quantities that were promised by the Centre.

The government press release from April 20 claims that Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and three union territories have started distributing pulses through PDS. Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have been able to begin distribution in large part because they procure pulses on their own and Andhra also has been providing pulses through PDS for the last few years.

In the month of April, Andhra has provided 13,500 tonnes of pulses from its own stock at subsidised rates. On the other hand, from the NAFED stock, 8,000 tonnes of pulses have been distributed in Andhra, once again hinting at delays from the Central government.

Officials at NAFED continue to remain tight-lipped on the matter. Several emails and phone calls through official channels have so far yielded no response. But, on the condition of anonymity, NAFED officials told The Wire that the size of the operation and NAFED’s lack of experience in dealing with such an exercise are key factors at play.

“People need to understand that we are not the FCI (Food Corporation of India which handles the distribution of wheat and rice through the PDS). Those comparisons should not be made. They have stocks in all states and almost all districts. We simply don’t have that and this is a huge logistical challenge in the best of times, let alone during the lockdown,” said a NAFED official.

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Pulses are only procured from a handful of districts in the country, primarily in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Ironically, however, none of these states have begun distributing pulses, pointing purely to bureaucratic hurdles which remain unresolved almost a month after Sitharaman’s announcement.

The problem, also, is in moving pulses from these states to the mills to process them and from the mills to the states for final distribution. “It is a huge challenge. See, the dal is lying somewhere. You get it and send it to the mill, which is somewhere else. Once the processing is done, you pack it – for which raw materials have to be there – and send it by rail or road – to all the states,” a NAFED official had told The Wire in early April.

For instance, the north-eastern states do not have a single processing unit and do not produce pulses. “The closest mills are located in Kolkata. But the north east has sent a preference for masoor, which is kept in either UP or MP. So, it’s a massive challenge for which systems are not in place,” the official said.

What ‘preferred’ pulses are

Officials also point out that Sitharaman’s promise of provision of ‘preferred’ pulse per state has complicated matters. Of the 22 lakh tonnes of pulses currently held by NAFED, 16 lakh tonnes are whole chana. NAFED would like states to accept the whole chana as it is, without processing.

“It can be soaked overnight and then cooked in a variety of ways the next morning. I don’t understand what the problem is. No states are keen on whole chana unprocessed,” a NAFED official said.

Even the states that have agreed to accept chana have asked for processed chana. “Then there are several states which want arhar. The processing of that takes around 10 days even in normal circumstances,” an official said.

But due to the lockdown, the milling process has been slowed. Mills are now, after having been exempted from the lockdown, working at around 40% of full capacity, while they were almost entirely shut in the first two weeks of the lockdown, according to Suresh Agarwal, president of the All India Daal Mill Association.

Agarwal, however, says that the milling process for the pulses to be provided through the PM Garib Kalyan package could have been much swifter had NAFED wanted. “There is a difference between saying and doing. They say something and do something else. No miller wants to work with them. They have hundreds of conditions and are very bureaucratic even in times like these. They treat us as if we are thieves. Only about 20% of millers are working with them,” he said.

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Siraj Hussain, former secretary of the Union agriculture and farmers’ welfare ministry says that NAFED does not have the capacity to fulfil Sitharaman’s promise. “Pulses procured by the Government at minimum support prices need to be milled before they can be given to states. For this, NAFED has to enter into contract with dal mills, transport raw pulses from procurement centres to dal mills and then transport milled pulses to the districts suggested by state governments. Unlike FCI, NAFED is not equipped to undertake such an operation,” he said.

According to a NAFED official, it’s still going to take several weeks, if not months, before pulses can reach every part of the country in the quantities required. “The problem remains. We don’t have the capacity to process. If states keep asking for processed pulses, it is going to take time,” the official said.

Politician and social scientist Yogendra Yadav said that the situation reveals the lack of political will. “The government has said that this is a national emergency. So then at a time of national emergency for you to say that we don’t have this, we don’t have that, is extremely problematic. The real problem is that there is no political will. If the political will had existed, the government could have picked up processed pulses from the open market,” he said.