Deficient and erratic rainfall has meant that sowing of major kharif crops is lagging the record levels of last year. This is likely to translate to lower foodgrain production, higher prices, and lower agri-growth
Even as a few regions in the country are afflicted by devastating floods, monsoons have been erratic and deficient in many parts. As a consequence, sowing in India’s main agricultural season, kharif, has been slower than in 2020. In that pandemic year, a bountiful monsoon and a bumper crop alleviated the economic distress in rural areas. How the monsoon's progress will have a bearing on food prices, the rural economy, and aggregate demand this year.
Both timing and geographical spread of rains have been erratic so far. An initial burst in June saw the monsoons reach western Uttar Pradesh by 18 June, nearly 10 days ahead of schedule. A significant lull followed. They covered the entire country only on 13 July, a week later than normal. As of 28 July, India was running a marginal 2% deficit in monsoon rainfall over its long-period average (LPA) from 1961 to 2010, according to the India Meteorological Department. However, there were regional disparities. The southern peninsula had a 22% surplus and central India 2%. But north-west India had a 7% deficit, and east and north-east India an 18% deficit.
In spite of a surge the past week, monsoon rains were deficient in 13 states till 28 July, including in important agricultural states such as Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Beyond the rains, reservoir levels are crucial for Kharif crops, especially for irrigated crops like paddy. Data from the Central Water Commission shows that, at an all-India level, water levels in reservoirs with irrigation linkages exceed the 10-year average by 21%. But these high levels are concentrated in the southern and western regions. Reservoirs in the northern, eastern and central regions show large deficits, and in need of rains.
Even though sowing of four major kharif crops has been slow relative to last year, a surge in monsoons over the past fortnight has resulted in sowing picking up. As of 30 July, sowing levels in 2021 were above ‘normal’—average of the last five years—for two of the four crops. These are rice and oilseeds, by 2.3% and 3.3%, respectively. However, sowing of pulses and coarse cereals is below normal by 2.5% and 5.4%, respectively. Last year, on average, 83% sowing for the kharif season was completed by 30 July.
Though agriculture accounts for only about 16% of India’s economic output, 60% of India’s workers find employment in farming. Their numbers rose after the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020, as workers returned from cities to rural areas. The bountiful monsoon in 2020 provided some relief as agricultural production boomed. 2021 may turn out to be very different.
For 2021-22, how the monsoon progresses will impact the last 20% of the kharif sowing season, and consequently production levels. In the top 15 states by overall foodgrain production, sowing in 2021 has trailed historical averages for the major kharif crops.
Oilseeds have overcome a high base and errant rains the best. Amid rising prices, sowing is higher in nine of the 15 states, including three of the four states that lead in acreage under the crop: Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan.
In three states - Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha - sowing is below normal in all 4 major kharif crops. Another five states are running a deficit in three of the four crops: Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, Telangana and Gujarat. Of the major agri-producing states running the largest deficit in rainfall, Madhya Pradesh is seeing sowing below normal in pulses and oilseeds, which are mostly rainfed. Haryana and Maharashtra, which have received excess rainfall, fare well with respect to kharif sowing.
The slower pace of sowing relative to last year also has implications for consumers. Lower foodgrain production could increase food prices, which have already spiked over the past few months. A bumper kharif crop in 2020 meant that wholesale prices fell steadily between April 2020 and February 2021. However, since March 2021, wholesale prices of foodgrains have risen sharply due to supply bottlenecks during the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic.
According to the latest estimates from the ministry of agriculture, total foodgrain production in 2020-21 was at 305.4 million tonnes. This is an increase of about 10% over the average of the previous five years (2015-16 to 2019-20) and the highest ever in a year. At current rates of sowing in this kharif season, it is unlikely that farm production in 2021-22 will match the heights of the previous year.
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