Khesari dal ban to go as toxicity fears recede

21 January 2016

In drought-hit districts of Madhya Pradesh, khesari dal is the main source of nutrition for most of the agriculture-dependent population. This is the only crop, they say, which can survive the harshest climates, ripens quickly and yields up to 500 kg per acre.

Despite these advantages, khesari was banned in 1961 because its consumption was linked to the neurological disorder lathyrism - which causes paralysis of legs.

One such farmer told NDTV, "We consume khesari because it is a cheap source of protein and we don't have to do much to grow it. We are not aware that it is banned and have been growing it for years. So far, no one in our family has fallen ill after consuming it."

Now it seems that the ban on the poor man's lentil may soon be lifted. In a reply to a Right to Information query, the Indian Council of Agriculture Research said that a research panel headed by India Council of Medical Research has proposed lifting the ban.  In the new varieties of the dal, the toxicity is "negligible". The proposal is now being considered by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.

According to experts, the ban was uncalled for as there is hardly any evidence of harmful health consequences if the dal is consumed in moderation. If consumed as the only staple diet, it may have some adverse effects but smaller quantities are good for health.

In the last 30 years, no evidence has been found of lathyrism caused by khesari dal even in areas of Madhya Pradesh or West Bengal where its cultivation never stopped and people have been consuming it.

But now, the challenge is to get farmers to start growing it again widely.

Dr S Swaminathan, director ICMR says, "When it is cooked, there will be negligible levels of toxins. Three varieties have been released. Research has been going on for at least six-seven years."

Research agencies feel the new varieties of the dal - mahateora, ratan and prateek - can reduce nutritional deficiencies in the poor.

But states like Madhya Pradesh are concerned because khesari is used for food adulteration. Agriculture expert and Activist Rakesh Deewan, who in the '70s even went to the Supreme Court to ensure effective implementation of the ban on Khesari Dal, too says that lifting the ban will lead to khesari being mixed with more expensive dal varieties.

"The research panel says that the new varieties have negligible toxicity and not zero toxicity... The effect of the toxins cannot be felt immediately after consuming khesari but after some time," says Deewan.

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