Pulses to the rescue

NAFED’s emphasis on pulses will help India pursue its Sustainable Development Goals

During his tenure as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture from 2010 to 2015, your columnist held the additional charge of MD of NAFED thrice for varying intervals of time. Those were indeed very difficult times for NAFED and it was difficult to keep the organisation running. However, thanks to the restructuring and revival package of the Union government, the sagacity of the elected board and the professionalism of its top management, NAFED has become the lead procurement agency for pulses and oilseeds and is again contributing to farmer welfare by providing the marketing support to this very important agri-commodity.

It was, therefore, in the fitness of things that NAFED took the lead in organising the World Pulses Day in India with the active support of the Global Pulse Confederation, FAO, Ministry of Farmers Welfare and Co-operation, NITI Ayog, AgriBazaar and NEML on February 10, 2020, at the Dr Ambedkar International Centre at New Delhi. Celebrating the entire value chain of pulses started with the UNGA declaring 2016 as the International Year of Pulses and getting the FAO, IFAD, CGIAR and national institutions involved in this. Although India should have taken the lead in pressing for the IYP as we are the world's largest producer, processor, importer and consumer of pulses, it is good that starting from this year, the Global Pulse Confederation and NAFED are committing themselves to organise the event in India on the designated day (February 10) each year! It may be pointed out that the production of pulses fits very well into the agenda of the Sustainable Development goals of the UN. The FAO report on IYP states that thanks to their low-fat content, absence of gluten and richness in vitamins and minerals, pules are essential for health, preventing diseases and combating malnutrition and malnourishment, pulses contribute directly to the first, second and thirteenth SDGs (poverty removal, eliminating hunger and climate action), and indirectly to the rest!

In his keynote address, NITI Ayog member Professor Ramesh Chand spoke about how Green Revolution technologies, which saw a massive spurt in the production of wheat and rice, also created the negative externality of pulses being moved to the most marginal areas. The fact that they can grow on poor soil does not mean that they will not grow if the soil is good and the land is irrigated. However, the economics of grain proved to be much better than that of pulses and India got her rice and wheat surpluses at great ecological costs with large tracts of land in Punjab and Haryana facing acute water distress. The healthy and protein-rich pulses gave way to potato and onion which made diets, even more, carbohydrate centric, thereby leading to its own set of issues. Again, while the procurement of wheat and rice was done by FCI for the maintenance of a national surplus pool and the PDS, pulses received lower MSP and were not part of the PDS. And although neither he nor any other speaker pointed it out, the fact is that NAFED's existential crisis for over a decade also contributed to the decline in the salience of pulses in our diets. This brings us to the larger issue that an effective co-operative marketing arrangement provides basic assurance to farmers that their produce will have a ready market. Thus, institutional strengthening is as important as the gains which technology provides in terms of better and high yield varieties. It was good to note that this aspect of strengthening farmers institutions like co-operatives and self-help groups was taken up in the technical sessions, for without a 'value chain' in this (or any other commodity), the farmer would not get a fair price for their produce.

In his Inaugural address, the Union Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar complimented the farmers of the country for having made India self-sufficient in pulses from 2016-17 by producing 25 MT of pulses. He went on to add "Our government has taken several policy measures for increasing the consumption of pulses, like the supply of pulses to armed forces and CAPFs, the inclusion of pulses to states under PDS, mid-day meals and ICDS programme. These have helped protect the interest of farmers, as well as sustain the increasing trend in the production of pulses."

Earlier, he launched NAFED Pulses in easy 'family packs', as well as NAFED Organic Pulses to meet the growing demand for quality pulses across all strata of society. This step of NAFED to develop its own brand for pulses will go a long way in providing a market for pulses beyond the PDS, besides opening avenues for exports, especially for the organic produce. As people become more conscious of their health, they would also like to move to food which is grown locally as well as organically!

To the sceptics who regard pulses as the poor man's protein and scoff at the idea of knowledge and technology sharing platform for this wonder- crop, all one can say is that pulses have been part of the diet of nobility and warrior classes across civilisations. Legend has it that during his year of being disguised as a chef, Bhima had perfected the art of making a wide range of culinary items with lentils. Throughout the length and breadth of the country, pulses are part of our diet, and also reflect the great diversity of food traditions. As it was both nutritious and easy to carry, most armies carried pulses in their convoys. In Ancient Rome, the gladiators were fed with pulses to improve their stamina and the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro in his magnum opus, Rerum Rusticarum said that it was healthy for humans, bulls and the soil!

The writer is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal

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