While the economy’s revival is still a work in progress, higher food prices, >especially of pulses, are affecting nutritional intake across India. The government is counting on a good monsoon season to spur growth and cool down the prices of essential food items. Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das said on Thursday that the government’s move to raise the minimum support price for pulses is expected to help push up their output and thereby contain food inflation. While a good monsoon would increase output, >it does not necessarily mean that food prices will come down, especially those of pulses. Monsoon rains between 2005-06 and 2008-09 were normal or above normal, yet the retail cost of pulses rose at an alarming pace in three of the four years. The Centre has already undertaken some measures to deal with the current uptick in dal prices: creating a buffer stock, imposing stock limits, and offering tur dal at Rs.120 a kg through mobile vans. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is signing a pact with Mozambique to double pulses imports from that country. More dal diplomacy is under way to scale up the approximately 5 million tonnes of pulses India procures from 46 countries.
But imports cannot be a sustainable solution. Farm policy mandarins need to wake up to the reality that demand for pulses is rising even in parts of the world where it hasn’t been a staple diet. Another warning came from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, which has incidentally designated 2016 as the year of pulses to highlight their importance in curbing malnutrition. As population increases and incomes rise, pushing up demand for high-protein foods like pulses, the weaker sections may be forced to simply cut back on consumption. This is a worrying portent for a country where per capita pulse intake has already fallen by more than a third over the past 55 years. There are structural problems in boosting output. Farmers, for instance, prefer to sow wheat and paddy instead of pulses, thanks to the Minimum Support Price regime. Since the Centre may not have the resources to procure dal on the same scale as wheat and paddy, it needs to think beyond the usual template. Now that it has allowed 100 per cent FDI in food processing, dismantling the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee laws that cripple free trade for farmers could pave the way for them to deal directly with large traders and retailers, thereby creating the assured market they need and bringing down consumer costs by getting rid of the myriad intermediaries.