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    Cloud Sourcing: Why India's agricultural sector needs to rely on tech and not rains for water conservation

  • Date : 13 July, 2018
    Cloudless sky and sowing
    Somewhere, in the hinterland of Andhra Pradesh (AP), its repercussions are being felt by tur farmers. As rain gods frown, their saplings are withering off due to lack of moisture in the soil. They look at the cloudless sky and pray, but they know the damage has already been done, so far as the productivity and quality of their crops were concerned.

    Murali Babu, general secretary, Federation of All India Farmer Association (FAIFA), expects the output of tur crop to get impacted due to shortfall in rainfall in certain parts of AP.

    “We have had a couple of showers but that’s not enough for cultivation in certain areas. The saplings are not surviving. Whatever has germinated is not growing properly because there is not enough moisture in the soil. Rainfall is not enough to percolate properly into the soil and cool it. There was some moisture on the upper surface for germination after that it is not sufficient, the root is not getting enough moisture. Within this month, if you don’t get proper rains, definitely output and quality will come down,” he laments.

    Data put out by the ministry of agriculture and farmer welfare corroborates Babu’s anguish. Till July 6, the sowing in major crop categories like rice, pulses, coarse cereals, oilseeds, sugarcane, jute and mesta and cotton was down 14.17% to 333.76 million tonne (mt) this fiscal compared with 388.89 mt last year. The fall in crop planting this fiscal is steepest in cotton at 23.97% slide to 54.60 mt from 71.82 mt, followed by pulses with a 19.36% decline to 33.60 mt from 41.67 mt and rice that dipped 14.95% to 67.25 mt from 79.08 mt.

    Since kharif food grains account for 50% of the total food grains output, any disturbance in its production is most likely to send rural macroeconomic calculations awry. Agriculture sector contributes 39% of the Rural Net Product and employs 64% of the rural workforce. In this context, a slump in agriculture production could affect the incomes of a large part of the rural workforce.
    Rain, rain come again
    Mahesh Palawat, chief meteorologist, Skymet Weather, though is not ready to pronounce this fiscal as monsoon deficient yet. He is seeing rains reviving over many parts of the country and could catch up a bit in the later part of this month. However, the weatherman stuck his neck out for agriculture output.

    “I do not know about how agriculture is going to get affected going forward but these rains will be beneficial for the already-sown crops. If the first crop is sown and there are no rains, then sometimes they have to be replanted or sown late. This will stretch out sowing of other crops and the quality of crops will also suffer,” he said.

    Palawat also feels there is little chance of the current rainfall deficit of 8% being entirely covered up by July end. He said the daily normal rainfall average was increasing every day.

    “There is very less chance of the rain deficiency being covered up. It is already 8%. If rains increase substantially, then only the deficit will come down. Even if by end of July, we cover another 4-5%, we will still end this month on a deficit note. Daily normal is also increasing. It (normal rains on July 10) was 9.3 mm and it rained 8.3 mm. So there was one millimetre deficit and gradually the average will increase. The race has to be very vigorous,” he says.

    It’s this race and the catch-up games that the farmers play with rains every year that’s making them breathless and inflicting fatigue in the agriculture sector.

    Parched land and irrigation
    According to Pravesh Sharma, former bureaucrat and founder of vegetable marketing start-up firm Sabziwala, around 43% of the country is today irrigated and the rest is rain-fed. Another interesting fact he reveals is that 85% of the country’s total available water is consumed by the agriculture sector. All this has increased the reliance of agriculture on rains. And looking at the erratic and fickle nature of monsoons, it has not augured well for the country’s macros. Rain forecast has always been in the zone of unknown or unpredictability.

    Sharma said bringing more areas under irrigation would do away with some of the unpredictability but he said that was a long-term measure and would require huge budgetary allocation. The former government official believes leveraging technology would go a long way in reducing dependency on rains for improving food production and quality.

    Giving examples of China, the US and Australia, he said these countries had lesser irrigated land than India but they managed to produce more food grains.

    “India’s irrigated area is larger than China’s but still China manages to produce more than us with majority of their areas being rain-fed. So do the US and Australia, their productivity levels are much higher than us. That means there are other technology that can be leveraged to mitigate the problem of low-moisture in soil,” he averred.

    Meeting food grains demand
    As per the agriculture ministry statistics, India’s food grains production has climbed 26.39% to 275.68 mt in 2016-17 from 218.11 mt in 2009-10. China’s food grains output at 620 mt last fiscal is more than double of India. There was a drop in Indian food grains production in FY16 and FY15 at 251.51 mt and 252.02 mt respectively compared to 265.04 mt in FY14.

    On the other hand, ministry numbers show the area under good grains cultivation has risen 5.51% to 128.02 lakh hectare in FY17 compared with 121.33 lakh hectare in FY10. In FY17, cultivation coverage grew 3.90% from 123.21 lakh hectare in FY16. During the last nine fiscals, FY13 saw the lowest area under cultivation at 120.70 mt.

    Economics of water
    Sharma said for optimal utilisation of ground and rain waters, India needed to shift from tube-well irrigation to systems which conserve water like sprinklers and drip irrigation.

    “A lot of areas are under the current flood irrigation system. These must slowly be converted to sprinklers and drip irrigation so that you conserve water. This should double the command area with the existing dams if you were to undertake 100% conversion to water conservation device like sprinklers and drip irrigation. Of course, that will require huge investment on the part of both farmers and the government. But somebody has to start thinking about it,” he admonishes.

    The government has increased funding for agriculture in the current fiscal’s budget by 29% to Rs 1.7 lakh crore from Rs 1.4 lakh crore last year. However, a large portion of it may be spent on food subsidy, market intervention schemes and price support and stabilisation schemes like minimum support price (MSP). The recent MSP scheme of assured 50% returns over the cost of production of major crops is estimated to burden the government exchequer by 35 basis points (bps) and is likely expand fiscal deficit by 0.1% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

    Price of keeping prices in control
    An economist with a management consultancy, who has yet to extensively study the impact of lower food production and MSP on food inflation, expects the two to have an adverse impact on it.

    “Within food prices, vegetables and other perishable commodities might go up due to lower production. On the other hand, prices of other grains because of MSP might also go up. These two factors can increase food inflation if the government does not do supply-side management. But if supply-side management is done and distribution chain is used efficiently then the impact can be controlled,” she said.

    Many economists believe that the government has enough buffer stock to counter any upside risk to inflation. The government may also resort to price management through a price stabilisation fund created for pulses and other commodities.

    Is rain the culprit?
    Devinder Sharma, trade and food analyst, did not see monsoon as the main culprit for the farm distress. “Good monsoon or bad monsoon, farmers continue to be in distress. This is the third normal monsoon year in a row, then why is agriculture economy not looking up?”

    He complained, food imports were shooting up despite normal monsoons. He said even in normal monsoon years, farmers were not earning better income.

    According to him, 60% of the rain-fed areas produced 45% of the country’s food but still continued to remain in the grip of severe crisis.

    “Punjab has 98% assured irrigation, every field is getting irrigation and the productivity is the highest in the world. Despite that, there is hardly a day when I don’t see reports of three-four farmers dying in Punjab,” said Sharma.

    He revealed that as per data collected through house-to-house survey done by three universities, 16,600 farmers have committed suicide in the last 17 years – between 2001 and 2018 – in Punjab, which has the highest irrigation and productivity in the world. “There is something going wrong somewhere,” he said.

    Have mercy, rain gods!
    Sabziwala’s Sharma also said India was quite self-sufficient in food and largely imports only two major items – pulses and oil seeds. India is a net exporter of major food grains like rice and wheat.

    “We have far too much food than we can manage but yes we don’t have enough pulses. Last two years we have been doing very well in pulses because import of pulses is allowed at a very low duty. This is being done largely to keep the consumer prices in check,” he said.
    Now, if the rain gods decide to play truant, and the farmers in AP’s remote villages experience below normal rainfall, then sowing of pulses could take a big hit and its output could further tumble this year. And once again, AP’s farmers will have no choice but to quietly bear the brunt.



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