A grim outlook for the rice crop
Rain patterns over the next month will tell us if a reduction in the kharif yield is unavoidable
Will India have to live with a reduction in rice output as well after a lower-than-expected wheat production this year? The monsoon’s performance in eastern India over the next couple of weeks will be crucial in deciding this question. In terms of national average, monsoon rains have been in the normal range this year. However, the picture changes drastically when rainfall is measured across regions. While many regions in the western part of the country have been receiving heavy rainfall and have had to face floods, rains have been scant, at least until now, in the eastern states such as Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand and in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. In these states, rainfall deficiency is in excess of 40%. The meteorological reason for this asymmetry in rainfall is a southward movement of the monsoon trough.
Experts believe that the trough is likely to move north once again and rains should gather momentum in these regions. However, if monsoon rainfall does not revive in these regions in the next couple of weeks, the outlook for the rice crop is bound to turn grim. Because rice growing involves a double-cultivation cycle – first sowing saplings and then transplanting them in bigger fields – the output is more sensitive to rains. The four states listed above, where rainfall performance has been underwhelming so far, account for almost 40% of India’s rice production. HT reported that rice sowing was down 27% over last year in the week ending July 15, even though cultivation for other crops such as pulses, millets and oilseeds is actually higher than last year. To be sure, it is premature to pass a final judgment on this issue and many experts have pointed out that India has enough rice stocks to deal with a likely shortfall in rice production. These arguments notwithstanding, a subpar monsoon and production for what is kharif season’s most important food crop, is bound to generate headwinds for rural incomes and tailwinds for price pressures in both the domestic and global food markets.
Such scares, even if they do not inflict real damage, need to be read in the broader context of increasing volatility in climate patterns and rainfall which are making agricultural production more and more vulnerable. This is bound to complicate India’s agricultural production and more importantly, food security calculations in the future. It is this long-term challenge which needs more focused and proactive policy engagement.