Reports of stress in agriculture have begun to appear because of demonetization. Cash is the primary mode of transaction in agriculture sector which contributes 15% to India’s total output. Formal financing in many parts, especially Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala is significantly from cooperative banks, which are barred from exchange-deposit of demonetized currency. Notably, this is a time of kharif harvest and start of rabi sowing, partly explaining why this period is dubbed the ‘busy season’ from a standpoint of credit demand, the other being bunching of festivals and weddings.
Agriculture is impacted through the input-output channels as well as price and output feedback effects. Sale, transport, marketing and distribution of ready produce to wholesale centres or mandis, is dominantly cash-dependent. Disruptions, breaks in the supply chains feedback to farmers as sales fall, increased wastage of perishables, lower revenues that show up as trade dues instead of cash in hand and when credited into bank accounts with limited access affect the sector.
Currently, many of these networks are operating sub-optimally or altogether at a standstill, depending upon location, market links and other item-specific factors. The input side is equally affected as many payments/purchases, such as seeds, fertilizers, implements and tools, are outright in cash. Borrowing-financing operations of larger farmers and organized producers are also cut off or severely clipped.
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The impact is visible in different sub-segments. Winter crops such as wheat, mustard, chickpeas are due for sowing in a fortnight. Wheat prices were already up due to low stocks and anticipated shortfall in 2015-16 output and have firmed up further as demonetization fallout pushes traders to build more inventories. Production in 2016-17 could drop if sowed acreage (rabi) reduces for want of enough seeds on time to exploit the adequate soil moisture. Yields could fall from late sowing and subsequent exposure to rough spring weather, the lack of sufficient or timely application of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. Farm labour, vital for this period, is reported to be unpaid as farmers have no cash. Many of them are reported to be returning from some northern parts to homes in UP and Bihar. Labour shortages and wage-spikes may follow with a lag.
Plantation crops such as rubber, tea, jute, cardamom are seeing no wages paid to workers. Small-medium tea growers have few buyers now (a third of the tea was unsold in recent auction in the south). Raw jute trade is halted as paucity of funds affects procurement-delivery by traders. Projections of scarcity have appeared with appeals for official procurement support. Cotton is witnessing havoc: daily arrivals have plunged to 30,000-40,000 bales against the usual 1.5-2 lakh bales at this time (harvest) as per reports and prices have soared 9% in a week, pushing up global prices in turn.
Vegetables and fruits that along with crops added 61% of agriculture’s gross value added in 2015-16, depends critically upon a cash-strapped transport sector for daily supply network. Sales have dropped sharply (25-50%) across markets with occurrences of dumping. At present, demand is repressed for want of currency, so prices are subdued, but eventually, supply shortages could cause prices to rise.
How long can the demonetization drag upon agriculture persist? And how soon could the segment rebound? The answer is up in the air at this point. Production patterns and cycles vary and there is little guidance as to when the demonetization dust finally settles. However, gestation periods extend from 2-3 months for vegetables and 4-6 months for oilseeds, pulses and cereals. Production losses in vegetables cannot be recouped and is a permanent loss. Lower cereals, oilseeds outputs would persist until the next harvest, or about nine months and it is certain that incomes and profit margins will be hurt.
Price and output effects will reflect all the above listed factors. This means considerable fluctuations, increased uncertainty and risk.
Renu Kohli is a New Delhi based economist.