"Aaj kal gaon me naya nara chala hai: Arhar Modi! Arhar Modi! Arhar Modi!"
"These days there's a new slogan in the village: Arhar Modi..."
Sarcastically riffing on "Har har Modi (hail Modi)," a 2014 election slogan, Congress vice President Rahul Gandhi was referring to the rise in pulses--in this case split red gram (arhar)--an essential component of Indian kitchens and budgets.
We checked the accuracy of Gandhi's larger point. The prices of pulses--the dal you eat--rose 200% over five years to 2015 (in Maharashtra), with 40-percentage-point rise in pulses inflation since Modi took charge. However, vegetable and general food inflation was higher during UPA-2, the second term of the United Progress Alliance (UPA), led by Gandhi’s Congress party.
The farm problems responsible--84% of farmland under pulses not irrigated; productivity that is among the world's lowest—for today’s pulses prices stretch back into the administration of previous governments, including UPA-2.
The chart below tracks three parameters: food inflation, pulses inflation and vegetables inflation (monthly) for the past four years; the last two years of UPA-2, and the first two years of the National Democratic Alliance led by Modi.
Vegetables Costlier Then, Pulses Costlier Now
Database on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India
Between 2012 and 2014, the inflation rate for pulses fell from 14% to 5%, touching 0% and rising steadily after October 2013, to peak at 46% in November 2015, and then came down to 27% in June 2016. The rise in wholesale and retail prices over the last eight months has been pronounced.
For vegetables, the inflation rate was higher during UPA II than now. It rose to 70% by November 2013, during the last months of that government. After Modi’s government took over, vegetable inflation remained negative region—meaning vegetables got cheaper—rising to 15% in June 2016.
General food inflation, on an average, which touched 16% as UPA II ended, fell to 3% under the Modi government, but rose to 7% in June 2016, evident in the rising retail prices of vegetables, pulses and other food products.
A storm of problems responsible for pulses prices
With two years of failed monsoons, insufficient irrigation and flawed, over-regulated marketing–prices rise 50% between the farmer and consumer–India’s pulses output is at a six-year low, sparking shortages and spiraling prices, IndiaSpend reported on July 18, 2016.
To tide over shortages and price spikes, India imported a record 5.8 million tonnes of pulses in 2015-16, 80% more than two years before, from 60 countries.
While the price rise is recent, pulses available for every Indian have fallen by 3 kg over half a century.
Also known as grain legumes, pulses constitute a set of 12 crops—from lentils to chickpeas—high in nutrition, particularly important to developing countries like India with rising incomes.
Apart from recent monsoon failures, the larger problems over pulses did not originate with Modi's government: Negligible increase in the government-fixed minimum support price (MSP) for pulses, the Indian farmer’s inability to grow more dal per hectare, and the growing tendency of Indians to get their protein from eggs, milk and chicken.
Apart from the fact that pulses productivity is among the world's worst--poorer Myanmar produces twice as much per hectare, Egypt more than four times as much--only 16% of farmland for pulses in India is irrigated, so, 84% of pulse farming depends on increasingly erratic rainfall.
India is the world’s leading producer of pulses, with nearly a quarter of global output, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation data.