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How an extended lockdown could impact sowing in the coming Kharif season

With the harvesting of key rabi crops such as wheat, chana and mustard coming to an end, all eyes are now on the next kharif sowing season that is set to begin in the next few weeks.

Covid-19 has led to a drop in farmers' realisations during the ongoing rabi harvest season, with some reports saying that prices of major cereals and pulses are ruling 10-15  per cent below MSP this month, despite lower arrivals. The crisis is expected to create more difficulties during the coming kharif sowing season if the nationwide lockdown continues as farmers might be hard-pressed for liquidity.

Unless there is spike in demand, which looks remote in the absence of strong economic recovery, realisation will continue to be under pressure for the farmers.

The government, however, believes that lockdown won't have any tangible impact on Kharif sowing and the nation is on track to clock over three per cent growth in 2020-21 on the back of a good monsoon and adequate availability of water. Several farmers groups think otherwise.

The Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) has written to the Prime Minister demanding an economic package of over Rs 1.5 trillion to compensate for the losses suffered by fruit, vegetable, dairy and poultry farmers, fisheries, apiaries, and spinach and flowers growers because of the lockdown. 

The Union, which is one of the oldest farmer organisations in the country, has also demanded that government arrange procurement of all types of crops -- be it wheat, gram, or mustard -- from farmers.

Though the government has allowed almost all farming and related activities, including seed production, fertiliser manufacturing and even farm equipment manufacturing, officials said availability of labour, many of whom have gone back to their villages because of the lockdown, remains a major challenge.
In Punjab and Haryana, where planting of paddy is about to begin in the coming days, reports said labour charges have already moved up as there aren't enough hands to work in the fields.

“To me kharif sowing should not be a big problem if seeds and fertilisers are made available to farmers in time. The labour problem will be there but then it will not be accentuated in places where reverse migration hasn’t happened,” said P K Joshi, former Director South-Asia of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

Punjab, which is one of the foremost agrarian state in the country has decided to re-focus on growing maize and cotton as it encourages farmers to shift from paddy, the main crop in the coming kharif season, due to shortage of labour.

Punjab had already been working on shifting its farmers from paddy to maize and other crops during the kharif season air and in 2019, it even managed to shift almost 0.75 million hectares from paddy to alternative crops. This time the focus has acquired added importance over fears of non-availability of labour. In Punjab, paddy is planted in 2.6-2.7 million hectares every year.

In 2019, Punjab planted maize in about 0.16 million hectares, while cotton was grown in 0.97 million hectares, sources said. The state government plans to at least double the acreage under the two crops due to labour scarcity.

Maize requires 3-4 hands per acre for manual dibbling of the crop, and if a mechanized planter is used it can sow the crop in one acre of land in less than two hours. That apart, even for harvesting, maize requires less labour than paddy as it can be done fully with combine harvesters. 

Monsoon cover

A major positive factor that could aide kharif planting is the southwest monsoon. If IMDs initial forecast are accurate, the southwest monsoon in 2020 is expected to be normal.

The Met department, in its first stage forecast released earlier this month, said that the 2020 southwest is expected to be ‘normal’ at 100 per cent of the Long-Period Average (LPA).

The LPA of the season rainfall over the country as a whole for the period 1961-2010 is 88 cm.

If monsoon predictions hold true, a big worry of farmers will be taken care of, but other challenges need to addressed urgently, else the good rains will be of little benefit.

Summer-sown or pre-kharif crops, according to government's own report, have been sown on about 4.13 million hectares till April 24, which is 38 per cent more than the same period last year, with paddy, pulses, groundnut and sesame seeds ruling the charts. 

Getting seeds could be challenging 

According to a report in Business Standard, a staggering 20 per cent of farmers in the country might not be able to get seeds and agrochemical supplies this kharif season due to problems in transporting from the manufacturer to the distributor, to the retailer.

This is because the inter- and intra-state movement of trucks has been severely disrupted by the ongoing nationwide lockdown.

Seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and other agrochemicals are classified as essential commodities and are exempt from any restrictions.

However, the movement of trucks and other modes of transport still isn’t normal despite the fact that both, the Centre and states have allowed transportation of essential commodities during the lockdown period, which has been extended to May 3.

With local authorities restricting the movement of trucks carrying agrochemicals and seeds, there has been a shortage of these key inputs for the kharif sowing season.

“We are trying our best to reach out to all farmers to supply seeds this kharif season. But we may not be able to reach out to more than 80 per cent of our customers across India and neighbouring countries such as Nepal. So, 20 per cent of the farmers we cater to may not have access to seeds,” the report said, quoting Satish Kagliwal, managing director, Nath Seeds, which sells seeds for use in agriculture, horticulture and floriculture.

Meanwhile, agro input companies are operating with in-house labour and an intermittently available workforce from outside. The farm input sector is facing a huge shortage of workforce for packaging as well.

Fertiliser availability remains comfortable 

According to a government statement, despite the lockdown, fertiliser sales between April 1-22 this year, through the Point of Sale (PoS) devices, were estimated at 1.06 million tonnes. This was 32 per cent higher than the corresponding sale of 0.80 million tonnes last year.

During April last year this year, dealers purchased 1.57 million tonnes of fertilisers, which is 46 per cent higher than last year's sale of 1.07 million tonnes in the same period.

“Despite lot of movement restrictions due to the national-level Covid-19 lockdown, with the concerted efforts of Department of Fertilisers, Railways, States and Ports, the production and supply of fertilisers in the country is going on without hindrance,” an official statement said.

The government said that on April 17, about 41 Fertiliser Rakes moved from plants and ports, which was the highest movement of fertilisers during the lockdown period in a day. One railway rake carries 3,000 tonnes of load at a time.

“The peak season for fertilisers starts in June when sowing begins, but with plants running, I don’t think supplies will get impacted and there will adequate quantities available for farmers,” said a senior official from a leading fertiliser company. 

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