As Prices of Pulses Soar, Can Khesari Dal Be an Alternative? 

As the cost of pulses soar, can Khesari dal, thought to be behind lathyrism, be an alternative, asks Vivian Fernandes

Updated
India
5 min read
Food regulator, FSSAI, wants the ban on Khesari dal to go. Is it a good move considering the rise in the price of pulses in recent months? (Photo: iStockphoto)

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) is of the opinion that the ban on sale and storage of Khesari dal should be lifted and the ministry of agriculture should promote the cultivation of this nutritious pulse crop. The food regulator is not averse to Khesari as long as the varieties are low in ODAP (di-amino-pro-pionic acid), a neurotoxin that causes paralysis of the lower limbs in adult males when consumed over long durations in large quantities.

The decision was taken at FSSAI’s November 6 meeting after GS Toteja, head of nutrition at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said its study had not come across any cases of neurolathyrism in the past twenty years that could be attributed to the pulse.

Lathyrus <i>sativus</i>, also known as grass pea or Khesari dal. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Lathyrus sativus, also known as grass pea or Khesari dal. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Why Is Khesari Notorious?

Grass pea, also known as Khesari or Tiwara, was prohibited for sale in itself or as an ingredient under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act after a study published in 1964 attributed the crippling disease in young adult males to the dal in the Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh. Since then, various states have banned its sale and storage but there was no bar on cultivation.

Newspaper clipping of a story on the harmful effects of Khesari dal. (Photo Courtesy: <a href="http://www.jimars.org/gallery.php?page=8">JIMARS</a>)
Newspaper clipping of a story on the harmful effects of Khesari dal. (Photo Courtesy: JIMARS)

In 1983, the MP government forbade the payment of wages in the form of Khesari dal after the collector of Rewa district suspected a connection between the pulse and the disease in the families of agricultural workers, on the basis of an inquiry ordered by the Supreme Court.

A Hotcake Among Traders

If it is grown, it will be sold. Khesari dal imparts crispiness to samosas. It is also quite cheap. Ashutosh Sarker of the International Centre for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) says it retails for Rs 40-45 a kg in Bihar and West Bengal while besan (gram flour) sells for double the price in Delhi. Traders adulterate besan with it, making a neat profit, which they deny to growers.

Khesari dal is quite popular among retail traders who adulterate <i>besan</i> with it. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Khesari dal is quite popular among retail traders who adulterate besan with it. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Grass pea is survival food for the poor in times of crop failures. The dal is nutritious; about half of it is starch and the protein content varies between 26 percent and 32 percent. It is rich in anti-oxidants.

Snapshot

Advantages of Khesari Variety of Dal

  • Khesari is a crop that can be harvested in a little less than 125 days and has several uses.
  • Khesari plants mixed with rice straw are nutritious fodder for cattle. Being a leguminous crop, it enriches the soil with atmospheric nitrogen.
  • Food regulator, FSSAI, wants ban on Khesari dal to go, its sale has been prohibited since 1964.
  • Presence of a toxin, namely ODAP, in this particular variety of pulse thought to be associated with paralysis in lower limbs.
  • Conflicting claims appear which dismiss the neurological disorder as merely a myth.

Impact On Health

Pooja Sah, who is associated with the implementation of the National Food Security Mission on Khesari at ICARDA, says the new varieties when fed to ruminants (cattle and goats) at the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute in Jhansi, did not cause any adverse impact. Blood and milk samples did not reveal the presence of ODAP toxin, she said, citing VK Yadav, the institute’s principal scientist in support.

Relay cropping is a traditional practice. Grass pea seeds are broadcast over standing rice crop two weeks before it is due for harvesting. The residual moisture in the fields enables them to sprout quickly. Farmers may also prime the seeds by soaking them in water or a mixture of cattle dung and the micronutrient molybdenum. The crop needs no tilling and little care. The only investment is on quality seed.

Khesari dal is apparently associated with a neurotoxin, ODAP that causes paralysis of lower limbs. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Khesari dal is apparently associated with a neurotoxin, ODAP that causes paralysis of lower limbs. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Low-ODAP Varieties

ICARDA, which shifted its headquarters to Lebanon from Syria a few years ago owing to the civil war, is collaborating with NGOs and central and state agricultural research institutes to develop new varieties and expand the area under improved ones. It has introduced a number of genetic variants of grass pea of West Asian origin from its repertoire in India for testing and breeding. It has collaborated with the ICAR on four low-ODAP varieties: Prateek, Mahateora, Ratan and Nirmal that have been developed at field stations in Delhi, Raipur and Behrampur.

The OCP Foundation of Morocco (an exporter of phosphate to India) financially supports the initiative to propagate low-ODAP varieties, though ODAP imparts hardiness to the crop against pest and disease attacks and the vagaries of weather. Some of the low-ODAP varieties have yields of 1.8 tonnes to two tonnes per hectare against the average of half a tonne for traditional varieties in Chhattisgarh and 1.2 tonnes in Bihar.

Link With Neurological Disease

Housewives are also being educated to remove the toxin from high-ODAP varieties by boiling, soaking, roasting or steeping in a two percent slaked lime (chuna) solution for three hours.

Has the cultivation  of the Khesari dal been neglected for long? (Photo: iStockphoto)
Has the cultivation of the Khesari dal been neglected for long? (Photo: iStockphoto)

“I have thirty years of experience with the crop and I have not seen any person affected by lathyrism,” says HC Nanda of Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwavidhyalaya, Raipur, who developed the Mahateora variety. In the only case of lathyrism in his knowledge, a link with the dal could not be confirmed.

India is short of pulses and their prices are shooting up, putting them out of the reach of the poorest. Every effort must be summoned to increase the yield and the area under them and to tamp down rates. The neglect of Khesari dal needs to be reversed.

(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagricuture.in.)

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