New Delhi: The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government isn’t hitting the panic button yet over the delayed monsoon, but is concerned about the long-term implications for its commitment to food security. The agriculture ministry has already started efforts to reorder farming models, irrigation processes and cultivation methods.
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The ministry held a meeting on Thursday with southern and central states, represented by senior civil servants, to review the status of rainfall and the sowing of the kharif, or summer, crop, after the Indian Meteorological Department forecast that rainfall would be 7% below normal this year.
The government maintained that the situation was not alarming—as yet. It refused to characterise the rainfall delay as a drought.
“We will watch the situation in July and see whether the rainfall is deficient. So far, we don’t see any deficiency, ” said T. Nanda Kumar, agriculture secretary.
Officials in the ministry said the window for the sowing of the kharif crop in south and central India is open until 15 July. “We are expecting rains by (the) last week of June and (the) first week of July,” Nanda Kumar said.
Wait and watch: Agriculture secretary T. Nanda Kumar says the ministry has so far not seen any deficiency in rainfall. PIB
Concerns are centred on how a deficient monsoon may affect the government’s programme to provide food security for the poorest of the poor.
The delayed monsoon precedes a legislation proposed by the UPA government that would provide a statutory foundation for its promise to ensure food security for all. Every family below the poverty line in rural and urban India will be entitled, by law, to 25kg of rice or wheat per month at Rs3 per kg.
At the ministerial level, the government has initiated efforts to make agriculture less dependent on rainfall.
“To fulfil the commitment on food security programme, we need to revamp the agriculture sector,” said a senior official in the ministry, who did not want to be identified. “The government will not be able to keep its promise unless we increase the production.”
According to the official, the ministry may also ask for an agriculture stimulus package in order to run the proposed food programme smoothly.
The State Farm Corporation of India, or SFCI, has been asked to look at ways to improve seed production, revisit the technology being used and explore private-public partnerships to improve seed quality and develop more drought-resistant varieties.
Rainfall in June contributed 18% to the summer monsoon rains. India has comfortable stocks of rice and wheat, which may soon reach 55 million tonnes, according to Mridul Saggar, chief economist at Kotak Securities.
”What we need to worry is about other crops such as pulses, oilseeds, sugar cane and cotton, which may largely be impacted if rainfall is deficient,” said Saggar, adding that a 10% shortfall in rain could wipe one percentage point off the nation’s economic growth.
Given the weather forecast, the government is preparing itself as well as state administrations. At Thursday’s meeting, the agriculture ministry asked state weather watch groups to review the crop situation region-wise in consultation with agricultural universities and to provide timely advice to farmers.
The media will be used to disseminate information on the crop situation, a dedicated helpline will be set up to address issues related to agricultural crops in different scenarios and states will prepare alternative farming plans, using funds from the Agriculture Technology Management Agency.
“If rainfall in July and August is sufficient, we will be able to maintain the same level of crop production like last year’s (230 million tonnes).” said Nanda Kumar.
He also said a separate meeting of secretaries from northern and north-western India will be held within a week and a final review of the situation will be conducted by 5 July. Nanda Kumar also said 500,000 tonnes of seeds were available for distribution to farmers.
Interestingly, agriculture experts say that water used up by agriculture is decreasing as a proportion of the total surface water available.
“There are no precise estimates but in the decades after the Green Revolution (of the 1970s), our yield increased largely because 80% of the available water was going for agriculture,” said TBS Rajput, project director at the water technology centre, Indian Agricultural Research Institute.
“Now yields in rice, wheat, sugar cane have stagnated, and that’s because water is being used by industries. Only about 70% is now going for agriculture,” he said.
Agriculture ministry officials also discussed the need to review farming models followed by different states. The officials pointed out that farmers, especially those in the breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana, have been using urea, a nitrogenous fertiliser, excessively because of a government subsidy provided for it.
In the interim budget for 2009-10, the government has allocated Rs16,400 crore as a urea subsidy. “This has led to an imbalance in the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) ratio and soil (is) increasingly losing its fertility. So there is a proposal to cut down the subsidy for nitrogenous fertilizers,” one official said.
Jacob P. Koshy contributed to this story.