Pulses or legumes constitute a major component in the diet of Indian population which is predominantly vegetarian in their eating habits both by tradition as well as due to economic compulsions. Though most can eat animal based foods like meat, fish and egg, due to limited income per family they cannot buy these expensive food items at the prevailing market prices. Milk is another protein source which is produced in India adequately but here also the average price of Rs 30 per liter makes its proteins much more costlier than that in pulses. Most pulses have protein contents of 23-25% on dry weight basis while in fluid milk it is only about 5% on fresh weight basis. In the case of meat it works out to a protein content of about 21-25%. Cost wise the costs per kg of protein from these three sources are Rs 300 from pulses, Rs 600 from milk and Rs 1000 from meat. No wonder people will less per capita income are compelled to to opt for plant proteins to meet their health need of 50 gm of proteins per person every day.
Some pundits feel that plant proteins are not of high quality when measured on scales of Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER) or Biological Value (BV), they being deficient in one or more of essential amino acids that human body cannot make in vivo. Probably this may be true but what one can do if he cannot afford high quality protein containing foods like meat? This is where food and nutrition science come to their help. Nature has a diversified source of plants containing proteins of different amino acid profile and therefore by judicial blending of different pulses and cereals one can get all the needed amino acids readily from such mixed diets. If Net Protein Utilization (NPU) another yardstick to measure protein quality is taken into consideration, egg ranks high with 90% plus mark followed by milk (80% plus), meat (65% plus), legumes (50-60%) and whole grains (50-60%). Two of the three limiting amino acids that humans cannot make in vivo viz Methionine is low in pulses and Lysine is low in grains. Considering that in a composite diet consumed by a vegetarian both legumes and grains are present and therefore the over all protein quality does not suffer from a nutritional perspective.
India being the largest producer and consumer of pulses has always been short of this vital commodity, forcing it to resort to large scale imports, some times almost 25% of its need being met by imports from countries like Canada, Myanmar, Australia, Russia and USA. According to government sources the country was supposed to have produced during 2013-2014 about 19 million tons (mt) with import of about 1.4 mt supplementing the availability to meet the demand of 21 mt within the country. What is disappointing is that the production of pulses has been stagnating during the last 5 years hovering between 18 and 19 mt annually. Why the country has not been able to raise production is a complex question and the international prices of these pulses fluctuate widely depending on Indian imports. In 2009-10 and 2012-13 the average imports were around 3.5 mt per year. Only in 2013-14 the imports saw a dramatic dip with only 1.4 mt being sourced from outside. Interestingly government offers decent minimum support prices (MSP) to pulses ranging from Rs 2950 to Rs 4500 per quintal depending on which pulse one is talking about.
In the domestic demand situation Bengal gram or Chick Pea is at the top consumption being 9.7 mt followed by Tur at 3.3 mt, Moong and Urad at 3 mt each. Others account for another 3 mt. Interestingly Dry Peas account for the highest import being about 1.33 mt followed by Masur at 0.71 mt, Pigeon Pea at 0.47 mt and Chick Pea at 0.28 mt. Though in the strict sense Dry Pea is not a legume as is being understood by many, it is used in fresh or frozen form as a vegetable; nonetheless it does belong to leguminous family. Considering that India is the largest importer of edible oils, almost 3 times the quantity of legumes imported, government is justified in persisting with out sourcing pulses because of the health implications of pulses in Indian diet. However not taking enough efforts in achieving self sufficiency in pulses production cannot be condoned. Besides, neglecting the role of pulses in the food security scheme of the country can be disastrous in the long run for the health of Indian population, especially that segment having low per capita income.
Talking about prices of various pulses within the country there does not appear to be any valid basis for some of the popular pulses being priced exorbitantly high making it beyond the reach of common man who either has to reduce pulse consumption suiting his purse or avoid buying them altogether. Same goes for edible oils also which are very highly priced, some of them costing as high as Rs 200 per liter to the consumer at the retail level. One of the demands made by pulse growers' community is that pulses like Tur and Chick pea must be included in the PDS food basket, priced reasonably, for the low income groups to get access to them. Manipulation of prices of edible oils and pulses is rampant with hording becoming a standard practice in the face of a soft governance system in the country. Will the government at least wake up now and "catch the bull by its horn" to give succor and relief to the much harried citizen?
The overwhelming obsession with cereals and sugarcane by the government is not understandable considering the astronomical import costs incurred while outsourcing pulses and edible oils draining billions of dollars of foreign exchange year after year causing hemorrhage to the public exchequer. As a part of National Food and Agricultural Policy of the country, oil seeds and pulses deserve priority considerations and all other crops, except cereals must play a sub-ordinate role. What ever be the cost there is an urgent need to prioritize allocation of resources from the government to raise all the food needs of the population qualitatively and quantitatively in the coming years. Government must be ruthless in restricting cultivation of non-essential crops so that adequate fertile land and inputs are diverted to the three crops viz, cereals, pulses and oil seeds.