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Thursday, October 05, 2017

Pulse Farmers: Custodians of Fertility, Water and Climate-friendly Agriculture

By on Thursday, October 05, 2017
Pulse prices are raging in Indian markets, leading to outrage from urban customers. Newspapers are full of coverage, cartoons and puns on pulse prices. The fate of rural population facing successive droughts which has to buy pulses is better left to imagination. If some benefits of this price hike were to reach actual pulse farmers, it would have been some consolation. But for now, as Pulse farmer Ashok Pawar from Osmanabad tells me, the Tur (Arhar/Pigeon Pea) that is in the market is last year’s. It was sold to the middle men (Adatya in Marathi) and market committee at a low rate as the production was dismal due to late rains and drought followed by unseasonal rainfall. This happened in 2013 too. Tur from 2014 is now being sold at a record price, the farmer watches this helplessly.
Same is the story told by Sachin Gavali, a young farmer and student who had planted Udad and Moong in part of his field in the drought-struck Latur district of Maharashtra this year. He received low price for his Udad even this year as he sold early and because the production was low. 
Due to the severe drought, pulse production has fallen to such an extent that from an acre, Ashok Bhau got only 1-1.5 Quintals of Udad, which can be sold at 11,000 Rs. now. Although 11,000 is much higher than the MSP, it does not make a difference as the production is extremely low. Sachin is sadder because he could not make even that much. He had to sell at Rs. 8000 per quintal in early October.
Both have sugarcane on their fields too and Ashok Bhau says he will continue to irrigate sugarcane, a 100% irrigated crop, even if that means less production of Tur or the remnant udad and moong in his field. Per acre, sugarcane will give him assured 30,000 Rs as profit when profit from pulses is about 7000-8000 Rs per acre.
Although pulses are hardy crops and need little water, they do need water in times of stress. With farmers diverting irrigation to crops with assured returns, how will pulse production grow? Without incentives to the farmer, any growth in pulses at this time will be at the cost of the farmer, who has been subsiding urban customers enough already.
Even as pulse prices rage around us, the fact that farmers are not secure with pulses points to a number of issues. 
While pulses, in the form on split dals or legumes are the primary source of protein for Indians when about 80% Indians suffer from insufficient protein intake, pulse production has recorded less than one percent annual growth during the past 40 years. This is less than half of the growth rate in Indian human population (India’s Pulse Scenario, National Food Security Mission). The productivity rise is not spectacular either. Per capita net pulse availability has declined from around 60 grams per day in the 1950s to 40 grams in the 1980s and further to around 35 grams per day in 2000s (NFSM)

Decline in Pules production: According to the 4th Agricultural estimates brought out by the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Pulse production in 2014-15 has come down to 17.2 million tons as against the target of 19.5 million tons. In 2013-14 it was 19.25 Million Tons. Even in the drought of 2012-13, the production was more than this year at 18.34 tons. Main reasons behind the decline are drought in pulse-growing zones, affecting Kharip Pulses (mainly Udad and Moong) and unseasonal rains affecting Rabi pulses like Masur and Gram. More than 80% area under pulses in India does not have protective irrigation cover and vagaries of rainfall are catastrophic, especially for Kharip pulses, which have a short growing span. India’s pulse production is nowhere close to its demand. Imports of pulses are increasing year after year, at a huge cost.
India is the biggest producer of pulses accounting for 24.5 per cent share of pulse production in the world. Other major producers of pulses in the world are Myanmar (7.3 per cent), Canada (7.2 per cent), China (6.4 per cent), Brazil (5.1 per cent), Nigeria (3.9 per cent), USA (3.2 per cent), Australia (3.1 per cent) and Ethiopia (2.9 per cent) (FAO Stats).  
State-wise area and production Major pulse-producing Indian states are the ones which face maximum droughts and depend heavily on rain fed agriculture.
Maharashtra tops the area and production of Tur or Pigeon Pea at an average of 11.34 Lakh Hectares or 30% area and production of 8.3 Lakh tons or 32.9% of the country. It is followed by Karnataka, but the difference is nearly double in terms of area and production.
Uttar Pradesh leads in Udad production planted over 4.9 Lakh hectares, giving 2.6 Lakh Tons production. It is closely followed by Maharashtra.
Rajasthan leads in Moong production at around 9.5 Lakh Hectares, producing about 3.5 Lakh Tons. Again followed by Maharashtra. Karnataka leads in Horse gram Production, followed by Odisha.
In terms of Rabi crops mainly Chickpea, Madhya Pradesh leads the country with 30 lakh hectares area, which is 35% of the country and 29.2 Lakh Tons production,  38.5% of the country. It is followed by Maharashtra. On the whole, Rajasthan leads in Kharip Pulse project closely followed by Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh while Madhya Pradesh leads in Rabi Pulse production with over 38 Lakh Hectares followed by Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Within the states, pulses are grown on rainfed, light soils with meager irrigation cover. For example in Maharashtra, which is one of the leading producers, Vidarbha region has 40% area and 40% production of pulses, followed by Marathwada which accounts for 35% area and 35% production of pulses. Most of this area is rain-fed. (Kelkar Committee Report 2013)
Area (million hectares)
Production (million tonnes)
Yield (kg./ hectares)
Above: Area, Prodcution and Yeild of Pulses in India since 1980s Source: Ministry of Agriculture
Import of Pulses: Because of thae largest consumption and decreased production, India is thelargest importer of pulses too. The imports increased from 2.2 million tons to 3.8 million tonnes in 2012-13. In value terms, the imports of total Pulses have increased from US $ 0.7 billion in 2001-02 to US $ 2.3 billion in 2012-13, around 12,000 Crores! 
 Why are pulses still risky? So logically, if pulses need little water, little processing, fetch such great prices, are always in demand and if we are losing so much of foreign exchange on buying pulses from countries like Canada, Myanmar and Australia, why are farmers not planting more of pulses? Why is area and quantity of sugarcane produced increasing in leaps and bounds, when it needs huge amounts of water, fertilizers and not even a food crop and whose production exceeds our needs, but production of pulses is declining and area under pulses is growing at a snail’s pace? Why is it that sugar, a hugely water intensive product, both in cultivation and processing, costs about 28 Rs./ kg in market, but gives the farmer an assured return of about 20,000 Rs/ acre, when pulses, which do not need water or intensive fertilisers, are processed only primarily and cost about 150 Rs/Kg still give the farmer a paltry 7000-8000 Rs/acre? How can any radical shift to pulses happen in such circumstances?
These are some perplexing questions, with no easy answers.
But look at it from the prism of water resources, low-input, sustainable agriculture and marginal farmers, and you cannot have a better mascot of sustainability than pulses.
Water: First of all, pulses need limited water, in fact, more water ruins production. Most Kharif pulses like Udad and Moong have shallow root zones, while Tur has slightly deeper rooting and makes it tough enough to withstand droughts. As compared with sugarcane, pulses need about 20 times less water. Almost all area under pulses in India is rain fed. For example, in Maharashtra, pulses are grown over 16.8% of the Gross cropped area, but only 3.8 Lakh hectares of this area is irrigated, which takes just 3.4% share in irrigation water. Compare this with sugarcane which is grown over just 4% area, but is 100% irrigated and takes 71.5% of irrigation water in the state.
While pulses do not need excessive irrigation, they depend on monsoon rainfall and some winter rains. Water is crucial in branching, flowering and pod forming stages, absence of which directly hits production. Ashok Bhau has got only 1 quintal of udad per acre this year, as rains did not come when his crop needed it. Unlike sugarcane, pulses are also vulnerable and unable to withstand too much gap between waterings and will entirely wilt off in the absence of water. This was the reason why pulse production dropped in 2014 when Marathwada and Vidarbha received just about 20% average rains in June. Being short duration crops, they are also more susceptible to extreme weather events,  so excessive and heavy rains in August 2014 again meant resounding losses to pulse farmers. Climate change is a reality for India, its not a matter of conjecture. Rainfall has been erratic, unseasonable rainfall events have been on a rise since the past 5-6 years, hitting the ephemeral pulse production badly. 
Is there no way out from this?
Protective Irrigation: Marathwada grows sugarcane on 2.3 lakh hectares of land. If 50% of this is converted into drip or other non water intensive crops, it would mean 2161.2 MCMwater available, which if supplied to provide protective irrigation to pulses, will mean 21.6 lakh hectares additional to area under irrigated pulses.  Even if we assume that this area was already under rain-fed Tur with rainfed yield of 750 kg/ha, the net additional production possible with this irrigation is 1.6 Million Tons or additional income of Rs 70,500 million. This is also close to the target of increasing pulse production by 2 million tonnes of the National Food Security Mission. 
This is a hypothetical case. While sugarcane has to be brought under drip, sugarcane farmer will not agree to shift to pulses completely. Why should she/he give up sugarcane which gives assured returns, even if the returns are shrouded in conflicts and struggles?  Pulses have never given even comparable returns as against sugarcane to the farmer. If we expect a shift to happen, pricing and procurement policy of pulses should reflect their true value.
To enable this shift, drip has to be heavily supported, like it is being done in Solapur right now through the efforts of Collector Tukaram Mundhe. But it will also require better groundwater legislation, better Climate Change Action Plan, robust and honest Crop Insurance to guard farmers against losses in time of extreme weather events. That will not happen unless the government recognises the invaluable services that pulse farmers are providing, & reward them for the same. The fertiliser, power and irrigation subsidy that state provides to a sugarcane farmer is more than Rs 10,000 per capita per year and government needs to seriously consider such subsidy to the pulses farmer too. 
According to Former CACP Chair Mr. Ashok Gulati, the capital costs of irrigating one hectare of land in Maharashtra lie somewhere around 6.6 Lakh rupees (they would be much higher realistically, thanks to multiple cost escalations). According to the White Paper on Finances by the Government of Maharashtra (2015), in the year 2013-14 the cost of electricity given to farm pumps, borne by the government is 3695 Crores. 46% of this subsidy flows only to 5 districts, with Solapur cornering maximum subsidy.
Rain-fed pulse farmers do not get a part of the irrigation funding, nor have the privilege of the electricity subsidy. By not being a part of these, they save huge amounts of public money, while producing the most important protein source.
It will be smart move by the government to provide direct incentives to pulse farmers, not limited to the measly MSP, which though increased over the years, never reaches the farmer and is not enough in the first place.
Pulses are Climate Friendly: India just published its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) in tackling challenges of Climate Change, ahead of the Paris Climate Change Negotiations. While promoting newer, and supposedly “cleaner” technologies, we continue to neglect the strong contribution that dryland farmers, forest dwelling communities, fisher-folk have been making for years while eking out a very modest living. We are willing to spend thousands of crores in Climate Friendly technologies, but are not ready to acknowledge, incentivise and encourage these groups.
Nitrogen Connection Most of the cash crops receive NPK fertilizers, in which N stands for Nitrogen. These fertilizers are produced mainly from Natural gas and their production is energy intensive with a high on carbon footprint, they are also subsidised. When Nitrogen-rich fertilizers are applied to soils, soil microorganisms convert some of this nitrogen to nitrous oxide, a gas which can escape to the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas; with 298 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide[ii]. India is the third largest Nitrous Oxide emitter in the world, following China and United States. However, Pulses need no nitrogen application as they themselves fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil!
This means that a pulse-growing farming is not only taking less water from the system and using less energy, she/he is also emitting less greenhouse gases and is in fact, enriching the soil with nitrogen. These nitrogen-fixing  benefits can be passed on, ranging upto 31-97 kg/ha to the soil for next succeeding crop.
Even in terms of processing, Pulses need only de-husking and separation into dals, a primary process which is less energy intensive, than say, sugar factories, which not only consume power but also pollute water resources. The husk is a valuable cattle feed, tells Ashok Bhau. The processing can and should happen at village level itself, so that it provides additional employment and value addition at the village level. 
Because of their low input nature, pulses are the crop of marginal farmers who are not able to appropriate either subsides or water from the system and save thousands of crore rupees per year. But what is the support that they are getting from our welfare state?
Is the MSP reaching farmers? According to 2014-15 CACP report, although MSP of pulses have been raised on paper, it is meaningless as hardly any procurement happens from farmers. Two most important procurement agencies of the Government of India namely FCI and NAFED were set up with the main objectives of procuring notified commodities at MSP, if and when the market prices go below MSP. “These agencies have been in the existence for over 50 years and 30 years respectively. Yet, the benefits of MSP bypass a large section of farmers, rendering the pricing policy and procurement operations ineffective.” (CACP, 2015)
Ask the farmer about this and a dismal picture arises. Sachin says they hear about MSP only in newspapers and on the TV, not in  agri produce mandis where pulses are sold. Ashok Bhau talks about the sheer exploitation that happens at the hands of middle men and “Adte” while fixing the price of pulses, playing on farmer’s need for immediate cash. As highlighted by this episode of Truth Vs Hype where SANDRP contributed, Government is conspicuous by its total absence in these mandis where farmers sell their produce.
Now contrast this with the struggle for FRP (Fair Remunerative Price) and government interventions, for the sake of sugarcane farmers. Even the Prime Minister has had to engage with the sugarcane FRP discussion. Pulse farmers have never received such attention from the system. This is despite the fact that Prime Minister Modi himself, during his address at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) said in 2014“The poor get their requirement of protein from pulses. Take it as a challenge that in a few years there will be no need to bring edible oils and pulses from outside. This is a national challenge and it must be taken up as a priority.”
What is true about pulses, also holds true for Oilseeds, wherein too India is a huge importer. In the case of oilseeds (edible oils) India  imported  a record US$ 11.2 billion (Rs 61,106 crore) worth of edible oils in 2012-13 (16.2 percent jump from last year) and US$ 2.3 billion (Rs 12,730 crore) worth of pulses (an increase of 28.4 percent as compared to last year).(CACP 2015)
According to the CACP report: “Lack of robust and dependable procurement machinery for oilseeds and pulses do not enthuse farmers to diversify towards these crops as NAFED has not been able to procure significant quantities of pulses and oilseeds. Unless some credible measures to strengthen procurement of these commodities are taken, farmers of other countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia will continue to benefit at the cost of Indian farmers. The Commission recommends to radically restructure NAFED so as to enable it to accomplish its main objective function of procurement of pulses and oilseeds if and when market prices go below their respective MSPs.”


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