Reports that meteorological conditions are turning favourable for a normal monsoon this year have come as a silver lining amid the general sense of despondency caused by the outbreak of COVID-19. It bodes well for agriculture and other rain-dependent economic activities as also for the overall economy. Its potential gains can, in fact, be enhanced further if the time till the onset of the monsoon in June is utilised to plan and prepare for diversifying agriculture to achieve two broad objectives. First, to replace crops like cereals, which are facing a glut, with those in short supply, such as oilseeds and pulses, or more nutritious and less water-consuming ones such as maize and millets. The diversification should also involve a greater integration of farming with allied activities like animal husbandry, fisheries, beekeeping, agroforestry, and others. Second, to increase the production of export-oriented crops to capture part of the space in the international agri-commodities market that is likely to be vacated by China and some other exporters due to coronavirus-related factors.
The optimism about the monsoon emanates from the ongoing changes in the surface water temperature of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. Weather agencies say that monsoon-inimical El Nino may remain neutral in the first half of the monsoon season and subsequently yield way to monsoon-friendly La Nina in the second half. The rains, thus, may remain satisfactory throughout the season (June to September). These conditions would be ideal for the farmers to try out new crops and other ventures with least risk.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a pronounced impact on the international agri-commodities trade. China, being one of the largest stakeholders, seems to have suffered the most. Its agricultural exports are reckoned to drop by around 17 per cent due to low production in the wake of the outbreak. This virus has also hit many other countries in Europe, West Asia, and Southeast Asia, the regions of interest to India, adversely affecting their cross-border trade of agri-products. India’s shipments of rice, buffalo meat, and a few other products to these regions have dwindled. That is all the more reason why India needs to redouble its efforts to grab some of the global business expected to be shed by China. The agriculture ministry has, in fact, already identified 20-odd items for export thrust. These include honey, soyabean, groundnut, litchi, guava, fermented tea, chillies, tamarind, and spices. Most of these products are already price-competitive in the global bazaar. With some incentives, their domestic production can be stepped up to generate an adequate surplus for exports. This apart, India has also developed the technical calibre to produce disease-free and international-standard seeds of many crops for the export market.
As far as India’s imports of farm goods from China are concerned, New Delhi doesn’t have much to worry because the quantities imported in most cases are small and their local output can easily be scaled up. Bamboos and kidney beans are the only products that are imported in bulk. The organisations like the bamboo mission and the technology mission on pulses need to take steps to augment their supplies. However, advance planning on all these counts is imperative to capitalise on the anticipated normal monsoon and convert the corona challenge into an opportunity to revamp agriculture and boost agri-exports.