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No justification for lifting ban on khesari dal

The desperation is clearly visible. Unable to rein the prices of common man’s dal, the mere idea of allowing the cultivation of toxic khesari dal shows policy makers at a loss.
In a grim famine-like situation I would have still accepted it. But to use the high prevailing prices of pulses as a justification for lifting the ban of the harmful khesari dal hardly makes any sense, both scientifically as well as economically.
Khesari dal was banned in 1961. The ban was imposed after reports of spread of a disease lathyrism, a neurological disorder from eating khesari dal (botanical name: Lathyrus sativus) that leads to limping, was widely reported and diagnosed. According to New Scientist (Aug 23, 1984) — “the disease has two forms: latent and established. The latent form is characterised by mild back pain, an alteration in gait and difficulty in running. In just over half the cases, the disease goes no further. But in its established form, lathyrism leads to spastic paraplegia of the lower limbs; the fortunate sufferers can hobble on crutches; for others leg muscles give way completely and patients are reduced to crawling helplessly.”
Despite the ban, khesari dal is still grown in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh. It certainly has some positive traits — it is a drought resistant crop, very hardy, and has a shorter growing period.
Since it is cultivated in Bangladesh, reports of the dal being smuggled by traders have also appeared from time to time. Even local traders are known to mix it with arhar to make a fast buck. So when scientists at the Kanpur-based Indian Institute of Pulses Research claim they have developed three varieties – mahateora, rattan and prateek – which do not carry the water soluble, non-protein amino acid ODOP toxin, I wonder how will they ensure that these three varieties are not adulterated with the traditional legume grains that carry the toxin. Since it is practically impossible to ensure, why then willingly get into a problem we know we have no control over.
There are several studies showing detoxification of ODOP by certain processing techniques like roasting, soaking prior to boiling, treatment with tamarind water etc. Some studies indicate that frying in oil removes 72-100 per cent of ODOP. Still, I don’t think it will be advisable to promote khesari dal in the common man’s menu assuming that he/she would take the necessary precautions. It is therefore very important to know how and on what basis the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has accorded approval to the three varieties. After all, any discerning consumer would like to know the details so as to be convinced. Similarly, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) also need to hold rigorous trials and that too in public domain before any definite conclusion is arrived at.
There seems to be no justification in pushing for the revival of toxic khesari dal’s production in the garb of boosting domestic pulses production. In any case, even if the commercial trials for khesari dal are approved, it will be before several years before its production can make a significant addition to India’s production of pulses. This risk is certainly therefore not worth the effort. Instead of diverting attention to khesari dal, which has historically been found to be toxic for human health, the entire thrust should focus on increasing domestic production of pulses.
Boosting domestic production of pulses needs a two-pronged strategy. First, it is important to raise the import duties so as to stop the cheaper imports coming in. At the same time, I see no reason why India should not refrain from importing yellow peas, which is traditionally used as cattle feed in Canada, and selling it as an alternative to arhar. Putting a stop to imports must be accompanied by announcing a procurement policy that assures farmers that every grain of legume produced will be purchased by the government agencies. A high minimum support price (MSP) along with the promise of an assured procurement is the only mechanism to boost domestic production.
The government’s move to procure only 40,000 tonnes of pulses for the proposed buffer it intends to create is a flawed approach. Building up a buffer on assured procurement and leaving the rest of the farming communities to be exploited by the private trade is no incentive for production growth. Such a policy may enable the government to meet any eventuality arising from rising prices, but is fraught with dangers. Unless the availability of pulses in the market increases, and that it possible only if the total production goes up, the buffer will not be of any help in bringing down the prices.

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