India, the world’s top producer, consumer and importer of pulses, will harvest its winter season pulses beginning in late February.

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Coming off a strong kharif (summer season) crop, Indian farmers are nearing the end of planting season for the rabi (winter season) crop typically harvested in March and April.

This year many farmers began sowing rabi pulses, which include chickpeas (chana), lentils (masoor) and peas (matar), a few weeks ahead of schedule to take advantage of the unusually high soil moisture resulting from one of the best monsoon seasons in years. As of January 10, rabi acreage under pulse crops was estimated at 38.3 million acres up from 36.4 million acres during the same period last year, according to Business Standard.

Raghavan Sampathkumar, International Marketing Consultant for Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, believes the current rabi figures to be more or less accurate and said they reflect the favorable weather conditions for pulses over the last year.

“[The estimates] sometimes may vary  plus or minus 10 percent, but I think this rabi crop could exceed some predictions because they are perfectly set up due to a fantastic southwest monsoon, which covered the country both temporally and spatially with sufficient levels of rainfall. This is normally good for the kharif crop but also sets things up very nicely as far as the rabi crop is concerned,” Sampathkumar told IFT.

“I think all the rabi crops will be higher in volume than at least the previous year, unless we have some weather related issues during the growing season” he added.

Chickpeas, the main rabi pulse crop accounting for roughly 70 percent of the sown area, have been planted on just over 17 million acres, a 6 percent increase from last season, according to Saskatchewan Pulse Growers’ January report. This figure should be taken with a grain of salt, however, and could actually be lower when the government releases its final statistics, the report noted.

Prices

As of January 10, chickpea prices in India were generally stable, though concerns about yields in the top-producing state of Madya Pradesh following reports of a cold wave did result in slight increases. Ample old crop stocks have kept prices solidly at bay, however, as has the prospect of increased production during rabi season. Reuters reported February chana contract prices at 3,071 rupees ($US 49.90) per 100 kg as of January 10. Spot chana prices in Delhi were 2,919 rupees (US$ 47.45) per 100 kg.

Lentil prices in India jumped 100-200 rupees/cwt recently in response to delayed shipments from Canada due to extreme winter weather. Traders in Madya Pradesh were buying lentils for US $61.39 – 67.85 on January 10, though they said that prices would likely come back down when the shipments arrived and when domestic lentils hit the market.

Import Demand

Pulse imports from top suppliers like Canada and Australia have been slower this year than last year. Import volume during the first six months of the fiscal year (April – September) was 1.42 million MT, and at this pace total imports for the year will fall below 3 million MT, down from 3.36 million MT in 2012-2013. This trend is largely attributed to the weakened Indian currency and the record chickpea harvest at 8.9 million MT compared to 7.7 million MT the previous year.

“Food inflation in India is very difficult to contain at the moment due a couple of recent problems, but pulses have actually declined in terms of inflation because of the good kharif crop despite a weak rupee. I don’t expect the demand to be strong for any pulse crop, but of course demand for different products is unique in nature and you need to be  mindful of that. You can’t generalize it as a whole because the demand drivers for each product really differ,” noted Sampathkumar.

“For example if you think about masoor, red lentil, it’s clearly driven by price and availability, so if nothing happens to the rabi crop and we get a good crop that at least equals last year’s production, I don’t think there will be much demand for red lentils from India,” he added.

In a recent interview, Canadian pulse expert Chuck Penner of Leftfield Commodity Research expressed some concern about weather in India and how it might affect demand for Canadian peas, which are often ground up and used as a substitute for chickpeas. He argued that lack of rain in some areas could reduce rabi pulse yields, which are typically around 0.21-0.25 MT/acre.

“They had a whole bunch of rain in the first part of October and then in the northern half of the country they had almost no rain in November and December. So they’ve increased acres, but I’m not sure that yields are going to be up there, unless they get more rain in the next little bit. I think the yields might suffer. So that could mean we actually see some decent demand from India in the second half of the year. And if that’s the case it should help prices remain steady or even up a little bit,” Penner said.

Export Ban To Continue

2014 is a huge year for Indian politics as the country anticipates what The Economist recently named “the biggest election that’s ever been held in the history of mankind.” Among the issues pertaining to the pulse industry is the possibility of a lift the export ban on all pulses, which makes an exception for kabuli chickpeas and organics. The ban is set to expire on March 31 just before the parliamentary elections in April or May.

Sampathkumar says a lift on the ban, however, is highly unlikely and any definite decision will not take place until the elections are decided.

“It is a longstanding demand by the industry, but I don’t think it will happen because inflation is a very big issue in the campaign. If you lift the export ban people will start exporting pulses and you run the risk of raising prices again, which is the last thing any government would want when elections are just around the corner,” he said.