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Abundant late rains bring new hope for farmers in the coming rabi season

Anil Goswami, a 45-year-old farmer from Budhni town near Bhopal, had shifted from soybeans to maize few years in the hope of better returns.

A few years after the transition, he did end up making good money, as the overall the market was favourable for maize, save for a few seasons. In the last kharif season (2018), maize was selling at over Rs 22 per kilogram, making it one of the most valuable crop for farmers.

Encouraged, Goswami decided to expand his acreage by taking some land on lease.

However, relentless rains since last few months have dashed all his hopes. Not only did his standing maize crop suffer extensive damage, but the price realisation was also impacted due to excessive moisture on the final produce.

A worried Goswami has now pinned all his hopes on the forthcoming rabi crop of wheat, which he plans to grow in his entire land parcel (owned plus leased).

“I have suffered losses in maize and now my only hope lies on the coming wheat crop,” he told this correspondent over the telephone from Budhni.

Since the region is noted for its high-quality ‘durum’ wheat, Goswami hopes the harvest from the coming rabi season will help him recoup some of the losses as excess rains, coupled with the delayed departure of the southwest monsoon, have left considerable moisture in the soil.

High moisture content will reduce the dependence on irrigation to grow the wheat, lowering production cost.

For millions of farmers like Goswami in northern, central and western India, the excessive rains this monsoon season may have aggravated their misery, but they have also rekindled hopes of a good rabi harvest if the weather in the coming months remains benign.

The late sowing of rabi crops due to delayed Kharif harvest could compensate for the loss if the yields are good. 

Wheat is the biggest crop grown in the rabi season, followed by mustard, chana and masur dal (red lentil).

Most of the crop grown in the rabi season is in irrigated areas and good southwest monsoon ensures that the water level in reservoirs and groundwater reserves are adequate. 

An IMD forecast also shows soil moisture levels in Central and North India are expected to remain stable in the month of November, which should aide the planting of rabi crops.

According to a report in Telangana, in September, the average groundwater level in the state rose by 4.7 metres from the pre-monsoon levels. It was 14.56 metres below ground level (mbgl) in May, and 9.85 mbgl in September.

A good rabi harvest could also ensure a pick-up in farm growth, which had slumped in real terms to 2 per cent in the first quarter of 2019-20 financial year, from 5.1 per cent during the same period last year.

“The excess rains in this monsoon season followed by strong post-monsoon showers bode well for the rabi crop, be it wheat, mustard and chana. Even onions and potatoes will be positively impacted by this,” says Madan Sabnavis, chief economist at CARE Ratings.

Anticipating a healthy rabi harvest, he feels India’s agriculture and allied activities Gross Value Added (GVA) for 2019-20 will settle somewhere around 2-5-3 per cent. The GVA for agriculture and allied activities in FY19 was estimated at 2.9 per cent.

The latest crop estimate shows that foodgrains production in the 2019 Kharif season is expected to be just 0.8 per cent lower than last year, at 140.57 million tonnes.

Kharif acreage was 106.27 million hectares in 2019, just 0.52 per cent lower than last year.

Bumper monsoon 

The southwest monsoon in 2019 was one of the best the past few decades, breaking several records.

The June-to-September rainfall this year was 10 per cent above average in the country, the highest in the past 25 years, according to the India Meteorological Department.

The last time India received more rainfall than this year was in 1994 when the actual rainfall in the country was 110 per cent above the average during the June-to-September southwest monsoon season.

Till September 30 this year, India received 968.3 millimetres of rainfall as against a normal of 880.6 millimetres.

Of the 36 meteorological subdivisions, 19 received excess rainfall, while 12 received normal rainfall and only five were deficient.

The several firsts of the 2019 southwest monsoon 

It was for the first time since 1931 that the southwest monsoon was excess after rainfall in June was more than 30 per cent deficient.

Also, it was for the first time after 2010 that the rainfall in July, August and September was above average.

The good rains boosted kharif sowing, which till the end of June, was looking down the barrel due to a 33 per cent below-average rainfall.

After pounding the country and causing some damage to standing kharif crop, the monsoons finally retreated in late October, making it one of the slowest withdrawal since 1960s.

If that wasn’t enough, the post-monsoon rains have been extremely good as well.

According to IMD, between October 1 and 29, India received 41 per cent more rainfall in the post-monsoon period, which is also among the best in recent times.

Several parts of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and also Kerala continued to get plenty of rain in October even though the monsoon had officially retreated.

Reports said heavy post-monsoon showers in Maharashtra's Akola district have destroyed more than 170,000 hectares of soybean, 9,512 hectares of sorghum and over 150,000 hectares of cotton crop.

Swelling reservoirs 

Another major factor that should aide in good rabi harvest is the water levels in major reservoirs across the country.

As on October 24, the live storage capacity of 120 reservoirs monitored by the Central Water Commission was 170.32 billion cubic meters (BCM), which is 127 per cent of last year’s water levels and 127 per cent of the last 10 years' average water level in these reservoirs.

The level is over 66 per cent of the live capacity of these reservoirs.

On both counts, the water level in the reservoirs far exceeds last year’s level and should augur well for rabi harvest and the power situation in the country.

By June-end, when monsoon was over 30 per cent below average, the water level in the reservoirs had dipped to just 16 per cent of live capacity.

A pick-up in sowing operations, which showed a surprise increase in September 2019, could also help improve the employment scenario in rural India.

In just a month’s time, the unemployment rate fell from 8.2 per cent in August to 7.2 per cent in September, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE). Most of this was due to jobs created in rural India on the back of good monsoons.

A similar trend is likely in the coming rabi season as well, which could re-start the consumption story.

"In 2009 (drought year) too, kharif crops were impacted due to delayed rains, but the same late rains helped rabi crops, so the overall impact on agriculture growth wasn't much and rabi saved the day. A similar situation could happen in 2019-20," said Mahendra Dev, Director of Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR).

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