Largest rice consumer, WB faces demand-supply challenge

Written by Rohit Khanna | ROHIT KHANNA | Updated: Sep 13 2010, 04:19am hrs
Sitting on a half-broken wooden bench in front of his hut, Madan Mohan Pan tells us, I may not sow paddy next year. The 40-year-old farmer of Somsara village in Hooghly district is clueless about how to repay bank loans taken for kharif cropping this year.

It has been over a month that Pal and his brothers have been waiting for heavy showers. Over the past fortnight, there has been some rain in parts of West Bengal, but it is already too late for sowing.

State agriculture minister Naren De said the shortfall in kharif rice cultivation will be around 30 lakh tonne this year. Almost 12 lakh ha is lying uncultivated, he said. The little rain so far has not been of much help to farmers. It will help the plants already sown to grow, but farmers cannot sow seedlings after a certain period, De said.

High temperature and less than 30% rainfall in several districts of West Bengal since the monsoon season started in June have pushed farmers in the rice bowl of the country to look at other cash crops and vegetables. Villages of 11 of 19 districts in West Bengal are left with mostly parched land this kharif season.

Meanwhile, input costs have gone up significantly due to scanty rainfall, making it almost impossible for small farmers to grow paddy this season. For every bigha of land we get a little more than 450 kg paddy. But we can barely see a profit of Rs 400 after it is sold, Pan says, adding, This year we had to pay more per bigha towards pump irrigation. Maybe vegetables, oilseeds or pulses are a better choice, adds Gopal Chandra Pan.

A back-of-the-envelope estimate of growing paddy in a normal season shows how it is becoming increasingly difficult for farmers to stick to the crop. Preparing a bigha of land costs around Rs 500, planting the seedlings is Rs 800, weeding costs Rs 150, fertilisers Rs 300, pesticides Rs 300 and costs for cutting and stacking paddy is almost Rs 1,300. Adding a minimum of Rs 800 for irrigating land through pumps makes it almost Rs 4,000 per bigha. If there is less rainfall, farmers have to pay more towards pump irrigation. Moreover, less robust weeds come up fast if land is not flooded.

Dilip Maiti (42) of Haripal Block is also in two minds over sowing paddy next year. We sow alternative cash crops during the rabi season every year, but during kharif we are dependent on paddy alone. It seems we have to look for alternatives during kharif too, he says. He could barely sow paddy on 14 bighas this time.

Why are the farmers then continuing with paddy Apart from the age-old tradition of sowing paddy, farmers are also apprehensive of low returns from alternative crops. Oilseeds or pulses do not require much investment, but returns are low compared to rice, says Kamal Pal. Moreover, productivity of pulses is quite low compared to paddy, as a bigha of land generally yields 160 kg of pulses. Moreover, oilseeds require wet land, but not flooding. And, if there is heavy rain, there is a risk of flooding. The entire crop will be lost if it rains continuously for a few days, says Maiti.

Alternatives could also be flowers or vegetables, says Ramprasad Ghosh, assistant director of agriculture of Howrah district, adding, Farmers in some areas in Bagnan region in Howrah did just that. Faced with insufficient rainfall, some farmers have also started shifting towards SRI (system of rice intensification) method of cultivation, which requires less water and has a higher yield than conventional methods.

Ironically, West Bengal is the largest rice consuming state, so in face of this shift to alternate crops, there's a demand-supply challenge to be tackled as well.