Flooding in eastern India raises concerns about crop size for world’s largest rice exporter

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Heavy monsoon rains over the Indian subcontinent have raised concerns whether the world’s largest exporter of rice will be on track for another record crop.

Parts of India’s eastern states of Assam and Bihar have been inundated, with heavy rainfall in the catchment areas of Nepal’s Gandak river submerging nearby areas.

Both the states are important producers of rice, though not as big as northern states of Punjab and Haryana as well as the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

India produced a record 118 million tons of rice last year, helping it consolidate its position as the top exporter of the grain. With concerns about the covid disrupting global food supplies, India will likely have a crucial role in feeding the world’s population, particularly in Assam.

While the monsoon’s progress has encouraged more sowing of the rice crop than last year, the extent and duration of flooding in India will determine whether India harvests another record rice crop, said Dr A.K. Nayak, head of crop production at the National Rice Research Institute told Indoasiancommodities.com.

“There are reports of floods In some areas of Assam and Bihar and those are rice growing belts. It will be the key to determining whether rice acreage and production will be bigger than last year or whether there will be a shortfall,” Nayak said.

Rice is a water-guzzler and therefore can normally withstand heavy rains, but prolonged flooding that submerges crops  can affect the production. Certain flood tolerant varieties like IR 64 Sub 1, Sambha Masuri Sub 1 and Swarna Sub 1 are able to survive submergence of around two weeks, he added.

Above normal rains

India’s seasonal monsoon rains were 6% above the annual average until July 20, according to the Indian Meteorological Department’s latest weather update. Eastern region’s seasonal rainfall were 13% above average, southern region 18% higher and  central parts 8% higher. Northwest India showed a deficit of 19%.

Nayak said that the deficit rains in northern India are not worrisome because rains arrived late and the region is blessed with canals for ensuring cultivation.  The region also plants more rice crops that are less water-intensive.

If higher than normal rains prolong through next month, then it could possibly lead to wilting of the rice crop due to the sheer added weight prior to the harvest month that begins in September, said Ajay Kakra, leader of food and agriculture at PwC India.

“If it (higher than normal rainfall) continues during that time in the paddy (rice cultivation) growing states, then there might be a loss. Right now there may not be a great loss,” he said.

It can be clearly assessed in September. Progress in the early stages of the rice crop including germination has been good, he said.

Higher rice crop production is being seen as crucial to India’s broader economy as millions of workers who have been displaced from their jobs in cities have returned to their native villages.

“It means that the same income will need to be distributed among more people,” said Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at CARE Ratings. He underscored that a hike in minimum support price for rice–prices guaranteed by the government to farmers — have been too meagre to compensate for the added pressure on farm incomes.

Biman Mukherji is a columnist and consulting editor at Indoasiancommodities.com. He has worked for international news organisations such as Reuters, The Wall Street Journal as well as for newspapers like The Times of India. He can be reached at biman.mukherji@indoasiancommodities.in

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