Since the onset of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, India has been treading on a path towards self-sufficiency in food. The achievements have remained highly skewed towards wheat and rice on account of technological as well as policy support towards these two crops. With high and assured prices paid through public procurement encouraging farmers to increase output, the production of cereals in India has generally been greater than the domestic demand since the mid-1990s.
The >per capita production of cereals has steadily increased in each decade from 145 kg during the 1970s to 158 kg during the 2000s. Meanwhile, domestic absorption of cereals has grown at a lower rate, leading to an increase in export of cereals. Between 2000-01 and 2013-14, India has been exporting 8.94 million tonnes of cereals per year on average while per capita domestic intake has fallen despite increase in supply of grains at highly subsidised rate. The trends clearly indicate that the increase in per capita cereal production in the country is not leading to an increase in the domestic intake. This, in turn, is not bringing about any improvement in nutrition intake.
Diet change and effect on nutrition
The primary reason for lower domestic intake vis-à-vis production is the declining preference of consumers for a cereal diet. According to National Sample Survey Organisation consumer surveys, between 1993-94 and 2011-12, the per capita annual household consumption of cereals has declined significantly from 155 kg to 129 kg, about 17 per cent in 18 years. In contrast to cereals, the production of pulses, which are as important a staple food as cereals, has not kept pace even with population growth. Per capita production of pulses in India has declined from 18.5 kg during 1965-1970 to about 15 kg during 2011-2014. It touched the lowest level of 10.5 kg in year 2002-03. Even with imports, India has not able to meet the domestic demand for pulses. The per capita net availability of pulses in the country, after factoring in for imports and exports, has declined from 18.15 kg during 1965-70 to 15.4 kg during 2011-14.
The changes in availability and intake of cereals and pulses have serious >implications for nutrition in the country . The decline in cereal intake despite abundant availability has caused a decline in per capita dietary energy intake. Although the per capita consumption of other food items like fruits, vegetables, edible oil, sugar, eggs, meat and milk witnessed moderate-to-high increase in the same period, it did not help in setting off the decline in dietary energy intake and protein intake caused due to decline in cereal consumption. As a result, dietary energy intake declined from 2,153 kcal per person per day in 1993-94 to 2,099 kcal per day in 2011-12 for rural India, and from 2,071 kcal per day to 2,058 kcal per day in urban India. No wonder the level of undernutrition (deficiency of energy intake and protein intake) as well as the proportion of undernourished population, based on the dietary norm recommended by Indian Council of Medical Research and National Institute of Nutrition, have remained high and are worsening.
We need to look for alternatives which suit consumers’ preference. Some experts feel that this deficiency will be filled by livestock products, as witnessed in the dietary transitions in other emerging economies like China. Empirical evidence shows that dietary diversification towards livestock products, particularly meat products, in India has been slow and this can be attributed to cultural factors. Presently, the predominant Indian population has preference towards a vegetarian diet. Even for the population which is not strictly vegetarian, livestock dishes (curry) are not part of their regular and staple food diet. It is thus difficult to imagine livestock products substituting dishes such as dal, vada, sambhar and various snacks and sweets made from pulses.
Some studies indicate that income elasticity of demand for pulses is close to one and that for cereals is close to zero and even negative in some cases. With the increase in per capita income, a consumer prefers to have a higher quantity of pulses. Pulses are part of the staple diet and are highly preferred by Indians. They are also a relatively less costly source of energy and protein as compared to livestock products. Moreover, over the past few decades, the intake of pulses did not decline because of choice but because of shortage in supply. So there are strong reasons to believe that Indians would raise their consumption of pulses if they are available at reasonable prices. Pulses are therefore the best candidate for reducing hunger and improving nutrition of the Indian populace.
Raising production If India is able to restore the pulse intake level to the years preceding the Green Revolution (from 41.9 grams per capita per day presently to 69 grams per capita per day as of 1961), it will raise per capita energy intake by about 100 kcal and per capita protein intake by 4.63 grams. This increase will raise the nutrition levels close to what is considered the normative requirement of energy (2,200 kcal per day) and protein (60 grams per day) for the Indian population.
The real problem, however, is how to increase the availability of pulses in the country. At present, we are meeting about one-fifth of the domestic demand through imports but such imports are getting difficult to arrange. Even after tapping markets of 46 countries, we are able to arrange only around five million tonne of pulses. Unlike edible oil, pulses are not easily available for import from other countries, especially with the preference for pulse intake rising in most of the developed countries. India, being the largest producer as well as consumer of pulses, thus needs to tap the domestic potential of raising the production.
The >productivity of pulses in the country is very low because of several reasons. High-yielding varieties of pulses haven’t been developed in the absence of any technological breakthrough. Pulses are grown mainly in marginal and poor environments under rainfed conditions. Low productivity is also associated with the sharp year-on-year fluctuations due to high vulnerability to environmental stresses as well as insects and pests. There is an urgent need to upgrade varieties, practices and policy support for pulses. Both public and private sector research should be encouraged and supported for breakthroughs in pulse technology at the earliest.
India has reached a stage where >cereals will continue to be important to sustain the present level of nutrition . However, the reduction in hunger and the improvement in nutrition require more of pulses. Going forward, the future production targets should involve much higher growth in pulses than in cereals.
Ramesh Chand is Member, and Shambhavi Sharan a Young Professional with NITI Aayog. Views are personal.