Mar 15, 2016

First, the unprecedented warm temperatures and then the unusually heavy rains followed by strong winds and hailstorm, the damage to crops is extensive

First, the unexpectedly warm temperatures that prevailed in January and early February, and then the widespread unseasonal rains, strong winds and hailstorm (in certain pockets) that lashed eight States – Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, Vidharba and Marathwada regions of Maharashtra, eastern Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand -- have left farmers bruised and battered.

There can be nothing more devastating for a farmer then to see his crop at the ripening stage lying flat on the ground.

For four years in a row, beginning with the rabi season of 2013, farmers in north and central parts of the country have faced the brunt of an abnormal weather pattern in the winter months. In addition, the back to back drought that prevailed for two consecutive years in 2014 and 2015 has hit farmers very hard.

I remember an insensitive statement made by the former Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar a few years back when he had remarked that unusual rains and hailstorm continue to happen and asked farmers to be strong enough to bear the loss. He however never had the same word of advice for the sugar industry for which he was always standing with an empty bowl seeking more donations from the government. 

Anyway, the loss to standing crops like wheat, mustard, chickpea, rapeseed and dhania is still to be ascertained but preliminary reports indicate damage to be in the range of 5-10 per cent. Unless the region is once again lashed by torrential rains and strong winds (followed by hailstorm), crop loss is expected to remain low. Last year, the fury of unseasonal rains was unprecedented, with western Uttar Pradesh alone getting more than the average of 100 years, leading to hundreds of farmers committing and some even collapsing from heart attack after seeing the extent of damage.

The heavy damage caused last year was instrumental in lowering wheat production, from an expected 95.76 million tonnes to 86.53 million tonnes, a drop of almost 10 million tonnes. Only a month back, the Agriculture Ministry had forecasted wheat output for 2016 to be at 93. 82 million tonnes. I am sure it will have to be revised downwards as and when the ground reports pour in.

It is not only the unusual rains and hailstorm that have done the damage, the unusually hot and dry winters this rabi season has also taken a heavy toll. While the flattened crops and flooded crop fields are a visible sign of the destruction wrought by unseasonal rains accompanied by strong winds, the loss inflicted by unusually warm winter season is not that clearly discernible. Winter plantings have been reduced this year, with Telengana alone showing a drop of 6-lakh hectares in area sown. 

Overall, three million hectares is the shortfall in rabi sowing this year. Meanwhile, Karnataka has become the first State to assess in advance the loss to the standing winter crops. It has sought central assistance of Rs 1,417-crore to make up for a crop loss of 70 per cent in the ongoing rabi season.
In Karnataka, rabi crops have been affected in 24.64-lakh hectares. This comes after a dry kharif season when Karnataka declared a drought in August for 27 of its 37 districts. By December 2015, 10 more States had declared droughts.

Although the Ministry of Agriculture has assured financial assistance to all the affected farmers, and has promised to provide all help from the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF) once the damage reports come in, the ad-hoc manner in which the recurrence of weather-induced crop damages for the seventh cropping season in a row are being dealt with shows how casual the challenge is taken. A failed or a reduced harvest only aggravates the continuing agrarian distress and pushes farmers still deeper into indebtedness, with many of them unable to bear the shock.

At the same time, a significant drop in foodgrain production puts additional burden on the carryover stocks necessary to meet the requirements of the National Food Security Act. This year, wheat stocks in the central pool are already at a low of 16.8 million tones, lowest in seven years. No wonder, I see the demand for allowing wheat imports growing with every passing day. Many news agencies are predicting sizable wheat imports to follow if domestic production slumps for the second consecutive year.

Although immediate disaster relief is certainly a welcome step, and the need is to hasten the loss assessment and relief distribution, past experience shows that this alone is not enough. The continuous battering that farmers have received over the years, especially coming in the wake of deliberately kept low farm prices, has only worsened farm distress. If the government can rescue the export sector with a financial package (includes draw backs) and also repeatedly bailout the industries for the continuing slump in industrial output, I see no reason why the farm sector cannot be provided with a substantial economic bailout package.

Farmers need to be given an economic bailout package of at least Rs 3-lakh crore. This is exactly what the domestic industry was provided with at the time of global economic meltdown in 2008-09.
Many economists have time and again vouched for low foodgrain stocks. According to them, the bigger the food stocks in the central pool, the greater is the economic burden. This made the government indicate that it will only limit procurement to meet the nutritional needs of the people.
This is a flawed policy decision, and needs to be immediately reversed. Perhaps the falling food stocks level after a series of bad agricultural years will force the government to rethink.

And finally, agricultural research must be directed to search for ways and means to minimize the crop damages from unseasonal weather patterns that are becoming more or less a norm. A cadre of trained youth in assessing crop damages has also to be built to help in girdawari operations. This cadre will be also required in the enhanced crop cutting experiments expected when the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna comes into effect. # 

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