For many Indians a meal is not complete without as serving of dal, or lentils. In north India, it may be a hearty black dal that could be a meal in itself. In south India, it is likely to be a fiery sambhar, while in Gujarat, it’s often sweet.
But increasingly the dal many Indians eat is, strictly speaking, not Indian. It is imported from countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Canada. In the 2010-11 fiscal year, the country imported almost 2.6 million tons of pulses, a broad category that includes lentils and beans, up from just 1.7 million tons in 2005-06, according to government data.
As I wrote in a article in this morning’s paper, India has had a bumper harvest of wheat this year, so much so that granaries are bursting at the seams and policy makers are scrambling to find space for all the grain the government has bought from farmers. So, why hasn’t India been able to similarly boost the production of pulses, a commodity for which there is obviously great demand, going by the import numbers and by what’s on dinner plates?
I put this question to Ashok Gulati, who is the chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices in New Delhi, a government agency that advises policy makers. He said there is a simple explanation: The government buys millions of tons of wheat and rice every year, but it does not buy pulses.
The wheat and rice help meet the needs of its food subsidy programs, provide a buffer stock in case of a drought and guarantee farmers a “minimum support price,” which often is higher than the market price for grain. But legumes are not part of the subsidy regime and do not earn the same favor from policy makers.
As a result, many farmers don’t grow those crops. Their prices yo-yo up and down from year to year depending on global supply and demand, making them a more risky investment. They require more attention than wheat or rice and can be decimated more easily by bad weather or pests.
Pulses are not the only such crop. India imports a large portion of its cooking oil from countries like Indonesia and Malaysia because it doesn’t grow enough oilseeds, another commodity not subsidized directly by the government.
“We are importing about 40 to 50 percent of the edible oil used in the country, so there is a huge deficit,” Mr. Gulati told me over the telephone recently. “We really need much more emphasis on edible oilseeds as well as pulses. And the policy is unfortunately more skewed toward wheat and rice because of the commitments we have made to distribute wheat and rice.”
Mr. Gulati is among a group of reformers who have argued that India needs to fundamentally rethink its food subsidies. Instead of tilting the proverbial field toward two crops – wheat and rice – the government, these people argue, needs to be more strategic and target more crops. After all, people need more than the carbohydrates they get from wheat and rice to survive and thrive.
Many in Mr. Gulati’s camp have argued forcefully that India should move away from giving cheap wheat and rice to providing food stamps that could be used to buy a larger range of food items like pulses, vegetables, fruits and dairy products. But that is a minority view among policy makers and advocates for the poor, who insist that the government must provide more people with more rice, wheat and other grains at lower prices. A new food security bill that will come to a vote in Parliament later this year is expected to do just that.
It is not that the government is not concerned about pulses and oilseeds. It has undertaken several efforts to develop hybrid seeds to improve the yields of pulses and oilseeds and to get more farmers to grow them. But those initiatives have so far only shown modest progress. The production of oilseeds and pulses has risen 22 percent in the last five years, but demand appears to be growing even faster as demonstrated by a 55 percent increase in the imports of pulses and edible oils in the same time.
Another indication that supply is not meeting demand is the fact that the price of foods that provide more protein and fat is going up a lot faster in India than other kinds of food, as many Indians become wealthier and are able to afford to richer foods. Subir Gokarn, a deputy governor at the Reserve Bank of India, haspointed out that most of the food inflation in India in recent years has come from the increase in the price of vegetables, fruits, oil, dairy products, pulses and meat.
The increase in prices offers some hope that farmers will find these foods more lucrative and start devoting more attention to them. Until they do, however, expect more of your dal and oil to come from East Africa, Southeast Asia and other distant shores.