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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Why sowing data holds hope for the economy this year

A good start to the monsoon has spurred early sowing across Kharif crops. If the monsoon continues to be favourable, this should translate into higher production

In a year when India is likely to register one of its worst economic contractions since independence, an unlikely silver lining is taking shape. India’s beleaguered agricultural sector, which employs about 60% of its workforce and contributes about 16% to its economic output, is set for its best performance in recent years.

Substantial pre-monsoon showers in May, followed by a timely onset of the monsoon over the entire country, has spurred sowing across all major monsoon crops. As of 1 July, four of the five major monsoon crops saw an increase in the sowing area of 27%-67% over their respective five-year average nationally even though there are variations across states.

With reservoirs holding nearly twice as much as water as last year, and a favorable monsoon forecast, it augurs well for enhanced agricultural productivity. At a time when the rural economy is experiencing severe distress due to the fallout of Covid-19, higher farm output can provide relief.

A combination of factors are behind the favourable farm conditions. Two cyclones, Amphan and Nisarga, struck on either coast in the pre-monsoon period. While they caused widespread destruction, they also brought significant rains to large swathes of India in May and early-June, paving the way for early sowing of Kharif crops. The Kharif season (June to September) sees the sowing of crops such as paddy, millets, and especially pulses, oilseeds and cotton, which are predominantly rain-fed. As of 1 July, the sowing in three of the five major Kharif crops is the highest in the last six years. For pulses, it is the second-highest sowing record over the same period.

Paddy, which is predominantly an irrigated crop, is the exception this year. Its sown area in 2020 has decreased by a marginal 4% over the average of the preceding five years. The increase over their five-year average is 33% for pulses, 39% for cotton, 27% for coarse cereals (like jowar and bajra) and 67% for oilseeds.

For the complete Kharif season, the increase in sown area is likely to be lower than these initial numbers. What farmers have done in May and June is use the bout of early rains, non-monsoon and monsoon, to sow their crops early. The monsoon has progressed quickly this year, covering the entire country by 26 June, 12 days ahead of schedule.

Rains have been abundant and, more significantly, distributed well. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), 27 states and union territories recorded ‘normal’ or ‘excess’ rainfall between 1 June and 5 July. The IMD categorises rainfall values as ‘normal’ when they are between -19% and +19% of the average between 1961 and 2010 for the same period. Excess is between 20% and 59%.

Reservoirs in India, too, are at much higher levels than the same time last year. In 2019, after an unusually delayed onset, the monsoon was extremely intense. It brought surplus rainfall to most parts of the country, even causing severe floods in Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar and the North-East. However, this ensured the reservoirs were replenished.

Reservoirs are crucial to irrigated Kharif crops such as paddy, which require standing water. According to the Central Water Commission, reservoirs across India with irrigation linkages had 54% excess live storage this year compared to the average live storage over the past 10 years.

While all regions are showing an excess, the level ranges from 23% for the southern region to 87% for the western region.

Besides good rains, there was also the covid-19 impact. While most economic activity was at a standstill due to the Covid-induced lockdown, farming was allowed to continue. With migrants compelled to return from cities to their rural homes, additional hands in the farm may have also contributed to a greater labour pool.

This June, leading tractor manufacturers Mahindra & Mahindra and Escorts recorded a 12% and 23% increase, respectively, in tractors sold over last June. The same month, the Centre also announced the minimum support prices for 17 Kharif crops, and said it would pay between 2% and 11% more compared to last year.

Among states, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which benefited from above-normal rains in early-June, are leading sowing in most crops. Madhya Pradesh has seen a massive sowing of soybean. Maharashtra leads in pulses sowing and has seen a sharp spike in cotton sowing. However, the top 15 states by farm production also includes states where sowing has lagged, notably Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka.

Indian agriculture remains highly sensitive to continuity in monsoon rainfall. While bountiful early rains have ensured healthy sowing, periods of low or excess rainfall can have disastrous consequences. It’s begun well. Will it continue well and end well?

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data

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