Grass pea (Lathyrus sativus L.), known locally as khesari dal (kesari dal) was once an economically important crop grown extensively in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Archaeological excavations in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh revealed that this crop was cultivated in the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age. This crop can survive in the worst drought conditions and has been an attractive choice for sustainable food production for centuries.
However, this hardy crop became embroiled in controversy in 1961 and was subsequently banned in India on account of the spread of lathyrism, which causes paralysis and muscle atrophy of lower limbs due to the presence of a toxin in high concentration called β-ODAP (β-N-Oxalyl-l-α, β-diaminopropionic Acid). Studies conducted over the last 40 years have conclusively proven that the great famine that swept the nation in the 1960s resulted in excessive consumption of this native crop (which thrived in the drought-like condition leading to higher ODAP production in the crop) continuously over a period of 2 to 6 months.
The ban was lifted in 2016 paving the way to cultivate variants like Ratan and Prateek that have shown less than 0.1 percent of ODAP content and led to higher yields. Both Ratan and Prateek have been grown by small and marginal farmers in the districts of Bhojpur, East Champaran, Nalanda, Rohtas, Nawada, Jehanabad and Aurangabad in Bihar with excellent results.
The higher yield and low ODAP content as compared to traditional varieties, low investment and cultivation in rice-fallows has increased the income of the farmers by almost ₹ 30,000 – ₹ 50,000 per hectare.
The revival of grass pea cultivation is extremely significant as the crop is used as a source of protein as well as fodder for livestock. This protein-rich rabi crop is sown in October or November and harvested in February or March. It is grown as a mixed crop with gram, lentil, field pea and sometimes linseed.
Several self-help groups are actively working with the farmers to enhance their income with value-added products. Grass pea is used in the preparation of besan as well as local delicacies like Gahana Bari (made from grass pea, black gram and poppy seeds), Phul Bari (made from grass pea, fennel seeds, dry chilli and ginger) and kurkure that are ready to eat and sold in markets across India.
The utilization of rice-fallow for grass pea cultivation has meant that the farmers have been able to use their land to the maximum in all the seasons with zero investment. This crop will soon become one among the remunerative crops of the state and country. Increased production of grass pea will greatly reduce the import of pulses through self-sufficiency in pulse production.
This drought-tolerant legume contains 31 percent protein, 41 percent carbohydrate and 17 percent dietary fiber. This crop is capable of adding adequate nitrogen and organic matter in the soil thereby, increasing the yield of subsequent crops grown.
Written by Lakshmi Subramanian
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