Ask any ordinary Pakistani regarding the difference between urad, toor, arhar and mash dals (lentils), and they may struggle to answer the not-so-tricky question. The price of cooked plate of dal is all he may be inclined to find out; given how remarkably resilient PBS-tracked ‘cooked dal prices’ have remained in the face of inflationary pressures over the past 2 years.
The common refrain of inflation running amok is not without substance. Price of nearly all kitchen essentials such as flour, bread, milk, ghee, sugar, cooking oil, beef, mutton, and even perishable vegetables such as potato and onion have risen by at least 30 percent since the incumbents came to power two years ago. This is largely attributed to the macroeconomic adjustments set in motion after the sun set on Dar-led currency management.
In sharp contrast, an increase of mere 17.5 percent (or Rs11) in price of cooked plate of dal is even slightly lower than the rise in headline inflation index over the last two years. This is even more remarkable considering that Pakistan is import-dependent for more than three-fifths of 1.5 million tons of lentils and pulses annually consumed. Pak rupee alone has depreciated by 35 percent since September 2018.
One explanation, of course, is clinical. Over the years Pakistanis have become used to the idea of smaller serving sizes, as their rotis become lighter, biscuit half-rolls turn into minipacks, and cola party packs turn into ‘upsized’ single servings. Consumers have also come to accept declining quality as a routine outcome of rising inputs costs, be it loose milk, ghee, or cheese. That the dal served at dhabas (roadside cafes) may have undergone a similar predicament, thus, appears a foregone conclusion.
But a more charitable explanation demands that the consumers look more closely at the recipe of their cooked plate of dal. Those raised on street food are inclined to identify the staple as dal fry, panchmel, shaahi dal, or dal chawal; often aware that most lentils are cooked in combinations, but rarely acquainted with the exact ingredients. Turns out, there is method to this mystery, the answer to which must take us through unit prices in dollars terms of imported lentils.
Since September 2018, unit price of imported moong has increased by 10 percent and passed on to retail consumers in a hundred percent price increase. During the same period, unit prices of imported masoor (in dollar terms) in fact declined by 19 percent, yet still translated into a 37 percent increase in retail prices – very much in line with currency depreciation over the past two years. Meanwhile, retail price of gram chana has increased by 18 percent, even as unit price of imports has declined by 14 percent.
More than percentage changes, it is the absolute values that helps put things in context. Exactly two years ago, moong and masoor were equally priced and were the least expensive of dal varieties. Since then, masoor has only witnessed a Rs30 per kg increase, even as price of moong has increased by over Rs 120 per kg. Similarly, gram or dal chana – two-thirds of which is locally produced and has three times the demands of other varieties due to diverse uses – has also seen its price increase by Rs 20 per kg on average.
It appears then that the price of cooked dal has been holding steady (relatively speaking) owing to both a casual indifference of consumers to the ingredients of what is on their plate, and a unique tendency of lentils to blend and become indistinguishable when cooked enough. If that trick is keeping dal and roti within the means of the poor and keeping serving sizes intact, then by all means.