At a time when the country’s economy is in the doldrums, staring at a contraction due to the Covid-19 crisis, agriculture is the only major sector that has shown adequate resilience to buck the downturn. More importantly, while the other sectors are likely to take time to recover, agriculture seems set to continue to grow uninterrupted. The reasons are many.
For one, the area under pre-kharif (zaid or summer season) crops has expanded this year by over 35 per cent due to sufficient residual soil moisture left by the last year’s extended and 10 per cent surplus monsoon.
Beside, this year’s pre-monsoon
rainfall has been plentiful and the ensuing monsoon
is projected to be 100 per cent normal that bodes well for the kharif production. Moreover, the water stock in the country’s 123 main reservoirs is massive 70 per cent higher than last year’s corresponding level and 67 per cent above normal for this time of the year (May 28 position). About 5 per cent higher fertiliser offtake and 20 per cent more sale of seeds for the kharif crops are the other reassuring factors.
However, there is another side of the picture as well. Despite various kinds of exemptions from the lockdown, the farm sector has not remained totally unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The fallout of the reverse migration of labour and glitches in the movement and logistics, which hampered harvesting and marketing of the rabi crops, are likely to persist during the ensuing kharif as well. The farmers could withstand these handicaps during the last rabi thanks to the timely advice rendered by farm research organisations and the exceptional promptness displayed by the Centre and state governments to help them out. Millions of alerts were issued by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), farm universities, Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) and other institutions to help farmers cope with the snags.
The mass media, including social media like WhatsApp, were extensively used to assist cultivators in changing their work culture and taking the necessary precautions on the fields, market yards and other places.
Significantly, the ICAR has again come out with an elaborate set of advisories for the coming kharif season that begins with the onset of the monsoon. The state-specific advisories for farming, animal husbandry, fisheries and other farm activities are being disseminated in local languages through all kinds of information and communication tools.
The emphasis this time is on efficient use of resources, including seeds and plant nutrients, and cost-effective means of minimising crop losses due to pests, diseases and weeds. To cope with the paucity of labour and hardships in availability of farm inputs, the farmers are counselled to rely more on mechanisation of farm operations and use of self-produced inputs like organic manures. In the case of chemical fertilisers, the farmers can skip adding phosphorus to the rice crop if this nutrient had been applied in the previous crop. Stress is also being laid on optimising crop yields in rain-dependent agriculture practised on nearly half of the cropland by small and marginal farmers. The farmers in these areas should choose the moisture stress-tolerant short-duration crop varieties, preserve rainwater and go in for mixed cropping. That would help minimise the monsoon-related risks.
Meticulous selection of situation-specific crop varieties, procurement of good quality seeds and timely sowing are the basic mantras for good production. The farmers in the north-western agricultural bowl (Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and adjoining regions), where the local labour lacks paddy transplanting skills, are being encouraged to go in for direct seeding of paddy with the help of specially-designed machines available on custom-hiring basis.
These simple ways and means, if adopted and implemented by the farmers carefully, can push farm output in 2020-21 to new highs. But the surge in rural demand that is vital to lift the manufacturing
and services sectors would depend on income generation through efficient, fair and transparent marketing of the farm produce, which the government needs to ensure.