India lifts five-decade-old ban on lentil linked to paralysis

New Delhi, January 19

India is lifting a five-decade-old ban on a type of lentil that has been linked to nerve damage and paralysis, in a desperate attempt by PM Narendra Modi to cut legume imports and make the nation self-sufficient in the edible seeds.

Hit by back-to-back droughts for the first time in over three decades, India’s lentil output has fallen and prices have nearly doubled. Now the government has cleared three varieties of the khesari lentil, which can grow in dry or wet conditions. But the opposition Congress party, which is trying to pressure Modi over continuing rural hardship, said government was playing with health of unsuspecting Indians by allowing the cultivation of khesari.

The varieties developed by Indian scientists, however, contain a lesser amount of a neuro-toxin that can damage nerve tissues and weaken legs of both humans and animals than previous varieties, said Narendra Pratap Singh, director of state-run Indian Institute of Pulses Research (IIPR). “The government thought if in a reasonable quantity it can be consumed then why not allow it, particularly when there’s a crisis and we’re importing pulses.”

Despite the ban placed on the lentil in 1961, khesari is still eaten in eastern India and neighbouring Bangladesh, mainly as a cheap source of protein for millions of poor people.

“This is how Modi government is tackling price rise — by lifting (the) ban on a pulse that’s medically proven to cause paralysis,” Congress party Spokesman RPN Singh said on Twitter.

The three varieties now allowed have been ready for the last 10 years and ‘various experiments on animals have shown there are no adverse long-term effects if consumption is in reasonable quantity’, IIPR’s Singh said.