Chickening out before dal

Pious chants of “Har Har Mahadev” have turned to “Arhar Mahadev” on social media. When I log into social network today, I find a lot of satire over the hike in Dal prices. Amid so much opposition, I am taken back to my B-School days,  being reminded of the satirical expressions of my economics professor, SP Das. During lectures, he would invariably give an example of the delicious Odia preparation “Dalma” (a typical Odia dish which consists of Dal and vegetables together) and its interpretation by others. It is perceived that the Dalma is the poor man’s food. In daily Odia meals, one usually finds rice, dal, one dry vegetable, and one vegetable with gravy. When people do not wish to have everything separate or when there is a lack of availability, they put the Dal and vegetables together and make one dish, “Dalma”. But gone are those days.

Yes, I also did believe that Dalma is probably the only affordable source of protein for a lower-middle-class person. Back then, if a small family of a lower-middle class purchased one kilogram of Dal, the family could manage a few weeks. As we know today, Dal is also a good source of protein. In comparison, if a family wishes to consumer fish protein or animal protein like chicken or mutton, or dairy protein like paneer, it would be costlier. However, that comparison probably stands invalid now given the current situation. Each kind of Dal or pulses – all major sources of protein – is set to be a spoiler now when the government’s endeavour to keep a check on the food inflation has not been effective. Since March 2015, major cities in India have seen a significant jump of about 60 percent in pulse prices. Even though experts have cited below–normal monsoons last year and untimely rains earlier this year as the major cause of the sky-high price pulses, there is no mechanism in place to tackle the current crisis. Ultimately it has become a huge burden on the common man’s pockets in the last 8-9 months.

India has been the largest producer, importer, and consumer of pulses. In many parts of the country, Dal is a staple food. For example, the whole South India depends on pulses to make sambar, chutney, idli and dosa, among other food items. The entire Eastern belt of India survives mostly on Dal and rice. In many parts of the country, varieties of sweets and savouries are too are made from Dal. Already, the jump in the prices of pulses has made them out of the reach of most poor families. The middle class too may be forced to cut down on its intake.

The situation is certainly alarming. The price of Tur/Arhar Dal in many states has already touched Rs 200 per kg. Meanwhile, the price of other Dal items ranges between Rs 150 and Rs 200 per kg. Despite serious attempts to tackle the crisis, the Central government is yet to succeed. The Centre has appealed to various State governments to provide information about the shortfall in supplies so that it can plan for imports accordingly. But not all the states are ready with the facts and figures, according to the Union Agriculture Minister.

The irony is not in short supply. The food item, which used to be considered as a luxury food is becoming cheaper. However, the food item that was considered the poor man’s food is becoming dearer. Probably food items like the humble Dal are no longer within the poor man’s reach. It has rather become the food for the rich. In many places in India including southern cities like Chennai and Hyderabad, chicken is cheaper than Dal. In many places, people are opting for eggs over Dal, as it costs only Rs 4 per unit. Poor people in Odisha have started to forget the Dalma, and gone ahead with the introduction of chutney with staple food.

In this context, it is pertinent to state the age old Hindi saying -”Ghar Ki Murgi Dal Barabar”. Such a saying justifies chicken as a luxury, but now it has reversed as it is selling cheaper than tur dal. The proverb draws a comparison between dal and chicken. On the contrary, the chicken currently costs around Rs 120 per kg, whereas Tur Dal is burning through the pockets at Rs 165 – Rs 200 per kg.

At a time of festivities, people are stepping out to buy provisions to celebrate. After getting their salaries next month, they may end up paying more for Tur Dal, even though raids on hoarders and importers have eased prices by about 15 percent. With limited stocks in hand after the raids, traders said retail prices may go up again next week as demand rises.

Many experts have suggested that the Central government should take some immediate steps like focusing on augmenting domestic production, to announce the minimum support price (MSP) for the rabi crop immediately, and many more. Even before any step was taken by the government, farmers in many parts of South India have already started growing Chana. The farmers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are also ready for sowing.

The government is under pressure to announce a significant increase in the minimum support price (MSP) for Masur and Chana Dal. If the MSP increases, farmers may show interest in switching over from cultivating wheat to Chana or Masur, and that may help address the current crisis. Beside the 
government’s inaction, fingers are also being pointed at middlemen, who usually hoard farm produce to induce an imbalance in the demand and supply chain. 

The massive spike in Dal prices needs immediate attention and resolution for the sake of the common man.  The people of India are desperately waiting for those “Achchhe Din” promised by our current Prime Minister. 
(The writer is a freelance journalist. Views expressed  are strictly personal)
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