Subhash Sule (CHS-Sachetan, Nashik) expressed the hope that Devinder Sharma would raise a voice against the removal of the ban on the cultivation and sale of khesari dal – and Dr Sharma has done so.
The Indian Council for Medical Research recently decided to lift the ban, put in place in 1961 because consumption of khesari dal had paralysed many thousands of people, particularly tribals and the poor.
Even in a 2004 publication ICMR noted that a community survey carried out in the villages of Bhandara district of Maharashtra revealed that several people were affected with toxicity-related illness after consuming khesari dal (Lathyrus sativus).
A 2013 paper confirms a causal relationship between the excessive consumption of L. sativus – which contains a neurotoxin – and neurolathyrism, an upper motor neuron disorder characterized by a spastic paraparesis of the lower limbs. The paper states that this has been known for several decades.
Our reader adds that bringing back khesari dal on the market is a retrograde step by the Government put in place due to its unwillingness to control food prices by taking action against the trading community that financially supports the ruling party.
Dr Sharma sent a link to his widely republished article on the subject, agreeing with the reader that there is ‘No justification for lifting ban on khesari dal’.
His assessment is that to use the current high prices of pulses as a justification for lifting the ban of the harmful khesari dal hardly makes sense, scientifically as well as economically.
He explains: “Khesari dal was banned in 1961. The ban was imposed after reports of spread of a disease lathyrism, a neurological disorder from eating khesari dal (botanical name: Lathyrus sativus) that leads to limping, was widely reported and diagnosed. According to New Scientist (Aug 23, 1984) – ‘the disease has two forms: latent and established. The latent form is characterised by mild back pain, an alteration in gait and difficulty in running. In just over half the cases, the disease goes no further. But in its established form, lathyrism leads to spastic paraplegia of the lower limbs; the fortunate sufferers can hobble on crutches; for others leg muscles give way completely and patients are reduced to crawling helplessly’.”
Sharma refers to studies showing that khesari dal contains the toxin ODOP – and states that although it is said to be removable, it is inadvisable to promote khesari dal on the assumption that the average member of the public would take the necessary precautions.
ICMR justifies its support for removing the ban on khesari dal:
- (though many thousands have been afflicted) this is a very small proportion of India’s population,
- it only affects those who eat large quantities of the pulse when other foods are in short supply,
- it grows well in drought conditions
- and it will have a medical application – now being named as ‘the golden pulse of the future’, containing an amino acid which ‘stays in circulation for longer duration and contributes to a healthier cardiovasculature’.
Sharma’s recommendation is that instead of focussing on detoxification, newer varieties being developed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) should be promoted. He adds that boosting domestic production of pulses needs a two-pronged strategy: to raise the import duties and stop cheaper imports coming in and to announce a high minimum support price with the promise of assured procurement.
Sound common sense? But with potential commercial returns to the pharmaceutical industry offered by a new medicine for the cardiovascular conditions rife amongst India’s wealthier citizens – and gained by developing a product they expect to be ‘universally accepted as a health food’ – will this view prevail?
Should medical ethics lead advisers to recommend exercise of the precautionary principle and avoid any further cases of this crippling condition, though it ‘only’ affects thousands of the poorest amongst its millions?