Pulses are staple food for the poor. They have
a right to get it at affordable price.
In 2013, the United Nations declared the year 2016 as ‘The International Year of Pulses’ (IYP 2016). When it did so, several eyebrows were raised. ‘Why is an international year dedicated to pulses when there are many other serious problems plaguing the world today?’ The answer is obvious. The unpretentious pulse has a lot to do with the poor. It is indeed a mandatory part of their daily diet and without at least a small intake a fairly large section of those who live below the poverty line will find it difficult even to survive.
In India, in the past year, pulses have been a bone of contention. In a lead article entitled ‘While dhal prices have doubled: here’s the math’ (TOI, October 17th 2015) the author writes, “Where does a 12% decline translate as 100% increase? In the bizarre world of India’s food math. Production of pulses slipped down by 12% in 2014-15 compared to the previous year. As a result, price of this essential item has zoomed up more than 100% across the country”. For the ordinary person, this sky-rocketing rise in prices, which the Government has been unable to control, has meant a severe blow. Some years ago, the rise in the cost of onions became a political weapon and even led to the fall of certain State Governments. The ordinary pulse is slowly becoming ‘the pulse of the people’ and has the potential of becoming yet another political weapon in India.
The question one needs to ask is “What are pulses and why are they important?” In an introduction to the IYP 2016, the United Nations says, “Pulses are annual leguminous crops yielding between one and 12 grains or seeds of variable size, shape and colour within a pod, used for both food and feed. Pulse crops such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas are a critical part of the general food basket. Pulses are a vital source of plant-based proteins and amino acids for people around the globe and should be eaten as part of a healthy diet to address obesity, as well as to prevent and help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, coronary conditions and cancer; they are also an important source of plant-based protein for animals. In addition, pulses are leguminous plants that have nitrogen-fixing properties which can contribute to increasing soil fertility and have a positive impact on the environment.”
• are nutrient dense, a good source of non-animal protein, and very high in fibre than any other vegetable
• use half the non-renewable energy inputs of other crops
• are a low carbon footprint food and improve the sustainability of cropping system
One also needs to visit the objectives of the International Year of Pulses which include:
• increase in pulse production by small land holders / women farmers to improve food security in high risk areas
• increase global awareness / interest of consumers, governments, food industry and NGOs in pulses and their health, nutrition and environmentally sustainable benefits
• develop an internationally coordinated health and nutrition research strategy through engagement with governments, researchers, NGOs, associations, etc
• improve the regulatory framework in which trade occurs to enhance food security and reduce price volatility
• improve production performance (yield, disease control, variety availability, etc) so that pulses can contribute to sustainable development of cropping systems around the world
There are several factors which are responsible for the rise of pulses in India today; these include:
• an increase in the demand for protein-enriched food
• the fact that several farmers are opting to cultivate and produce cash crops rather than pulses
• the Government has no effective price support mechanism for pulses
• there is an improper management and distribution of these essential commodities
• rampant corruption caused by hoarding by traders to increase their profits
• there is gross supply chain mismanagement
• and finally, the Government does not seem to have the political will to check the rising prices of pulses and ensure that at least the poor and the marginalised of the country have a basic nutrient in their daily diet
Given the growing global concern for the environment, pulses are generally regarded as environment-friendly food because they require minimal processing and no refrigeration which limits natural resource consumption in the later stages of the food supply chain. Pulses can be stored normally for several months and sometimes even for years without spoiling or losing its nutritional value. This can reduce the likelihood of consumer food waste due to spoilage and make pulses a really good choice for households which suffer from food insecurity. Above all, even when cooking pulses consume far less water than meat.
Many of the world’s poor have little or no choice with regard to food. Millions in India have to subsist on rice and/or rotis (chapattis), make do with a little dhal ensure that they are able to survive. When pulses go beyond the reach of these poor, we are not merely taking away what is rightfully theirs but in more ways than one hampering their growth and even perhaps survival. Having felt the pulse of the people, we need to realise that what is happening in our world today like the scarcity of pulses in India, is something to be deeply concerned about.
In ‘Laudato Si’ Pope Francis reminds us, “For poor countries, the priorities must be to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote the social development of their people. At the same time, they need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively” (#172); but, are we interested?
In this International Year of Pulses, the least that many of us can do is to ensure that the poor of our country have at least a cup full of pulse as their daily bread!
Cedric Prakash SJ