Production worries | Business Standard Editorials

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Patchy rainfall could affect kharif output

With the main kharif sowing season now coming to an end, it seems fairly certain that the nearly 10 per cent surplus rainfall till mid-August might not yield commensurate gains in farm production. In fact, on the contrary, the uneven spread of this precipitation, over both time and space, might adversely affect the plantings and, more so, the production of some key crops, including the main kharif cereal rice. Though the area under commercial crops like cotton, sugarcane and soybean has expanded, the output outlook is far from upbeat because of rain-related issues. While the final outcome would depend on the monsoon’s performance in the remaining part of the season and the post-monsoon showers in October, the concern about the likely dip in the production of some important crops and its repercussions for inflation remain unabated.

The biggest worry is about the huge lag in paddy sowing in the eastern Gangetic rice-growing belt of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and the adjoining areas. The deficiency in monsoon rainfall in this tract varies from 35 per cent in the Gangetic West Bengal to as high as 47 per cent in eastern Uttar Pradesh, causing nearly drought-like conditions. This is causing worldwide concern because India has emerged as the largest exporter of rice and a major contributor to global food security, especially since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Last year, India exported a record 21 million tonnes of rice, accounting for about 40 per cent of the global trade. Any curbs on rice exports by India, on the lines of those on wheat and sugar, would have grave implications for global food availability and prices.

While that is the situation in the northern half of the country, the central and peninsular India, on the other hand, has had to cope with excess rainfall. Torrential showers at many places in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have, in fact, damaged the young crops, necessitating replanting in several areas. Among the commercial crops, cotton is reported to have seen the largest gain in acreage, countrywide, due chiefly to high ruling prices of this natural fibre in the domestic and export markets. But the standing crop in many states is said to be in a poor shape due to the onslaught of dreaded pests like the whitefly and pink bollworm. The major northern cotton belt, spanning Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, is said to be the worst-hit.

Waning immunity of the genetically modified Bt-cotton against the pink bollworm is held primarily responsible for the re-emergence of this pernicious pest. While the existing Bt-hybrids, which occupy about 95 per cent of the planted area, have become vulnerable to this pest, the new ones to replace them are not forthcoming because of the government’s ill-advised policy of disallowing development of new GM crops. While the cotton crop may partly be salvaged through pesticide spraying, in the case of rice, the government would need to step in with amendments to its grain management policies. Though any curbs on rice exports would be ill-advised at this stage in view of the abundant stocks in the government’s grain coffers — nearly 2.5 times the quantity needed to be held as buffer and strategic reserve — the use of rice for ethanol production would need to be reconsidered.

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