COMMENTARY – An ear to India’s parched grounds needed

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It would seem that even the gods are conspiring against the poor Indian farmer. If one year of scanty monsoon was not bad enough already, a delay in the arrival of the seasonal rains this year is going to hit them harder.

Typically, the monsoon rains set in over southern India by end-May, but it looks like that may get stretched a bit to this month. But what’s probably a bigger worry is that the rains in the first half of the June-September season may be less than the second half due to a weak El Niño effect, a weather phenomenon that can cause uneven distribution of rains.

The monsoon accounts for 70% of India’s total rainfall and is considered a lifeline for rural India, as more than half of summer season crops are nourished by rains alone. Scanty showers in June and July tend to affect sowing of crops as beyond that the time window to harvest becomes too small and often interferes with plantings of winter season crops like wheat.

Therefore farmers, especially in northern India, prefer to irrigate their plants by drawing water through bore wells. But this means extra expenses as they have to hire or buy pumps that can draw out the water from below the ground.

Even in the best of times, farmers end up taking loans to meet this expenditure, but now small and marginal farmers would probably find it tough to borrow more after incurring debts to tide over the shock demonetisation move that  sucked out all their cash.

The way things are unfolding, it won’t surprise anybody if rural distress in India only increases.

CARE Ratings highlighted that agriculture sector’s growth in the Jan-March quarter contracted by 0.1 %, compared to global growth of 6.5 percent. The sector’s sharp fall affected consumer products such as cars and dragged GDP growth down to 5.8% for the quarter.

Though one of the first policy measure of the Narendra Modi government in its second term has been to expand cash dole outs  and pensions for farmers, a far bigger boost would be needed to stimulate agriculture growth if the rains fail.

Farmers  would need a holistic package, including better irrigation, and procurement and easier and timely distribution of fast-growing hybrid crops that can mitigate the effect of uneven rains.

Unless such measures are taken on a war footing, the new government could well see farm growth slowing further and drag the  wider economy as well, which in the last quarter hit a five-year low.

Raj Kishen, the columnist, is an avid weather-related policy watcher

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