Column : The rain gods smile

Written by P. Raghavan | Updated: Oct 3 2011, 09:00am hrs
As the southwest monsoon moves midway into its withdrawal phase, the prospects look encouraging. Numbers for the period June 1 to September 21 show that the cumulative rainfall from the southwest monsoon in the current year is 875 mm, which is 4% higher than the long-term average (LPA) rainfall of 843 mm. This indicates a rather optimistic scenario, similar to that in the same period of the previous year when the annual rainfall soared 4% higher than the LPA, which helped push up agricultural growth by a record 6.6% in 2010-11, the highest in over a decade. But the good rains pushed the Indian Meteorological Department to a corner, given that it has scaled down its April forecasts from normal (96-104% of LPA) to below normal (90-96% of LPA) in the forecast update made in June.

What is of more significance than the total quantity is that the rainfall was well distributed across the country, though not all regions benefited equally. Numbers by the third week of September show that 33 of the 36 Met subdivisions received normal or excess rains and rain was deficient in only three Met subdivisions. This is also a record for the recent years, bettered only in 2008 when 34 of the 36 subdivisions received normal or excess rains.

However, a look across the regions shows wide disparities. Numbers collated show that the top beneficiary was central India where the actual rainfall was 13% above the normal rainfall, followed by northwest India, which registered an 8% increase, followed by south peninsular India with a 6% gain. However, the rainfall in east and northeast India was 15% below normal.

The buoyant monsoon has had a positive impact on agricultural production. Trends until mid-September show that the total sown area has gone up to 1,038 lakh hectares, almost 3% larger than the 1,011 lakh hectares sown in 2010. However, there was substantial disparity in the changes in sown area across major crops. While the acreage under rice, oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane increased, that under coarse cereals and pulses declined. What is more surprising is that the changes in sown area seem to have little or even no correlation with the increase in minimum support prices.

While the 8% hike in the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy this year, to R1,080 for common and R1,110 for grade-A paddywhich is marginally higher than the 5% hike in the previous yearseems to have helped push up the sown acreage, the same did not hold in the case of coarse cereals and pulses. Thus, although the MSP of most coarse cereals and pulses was hiked up in double digits in the current kharif season, which is more than double the hike in the previous year, the sown acreage declined in both cases.

The highest increase in sown area was in rice, which went up by 38 lakh hectares, or 9.8%, a spectacular increase considering that sown area under rice had declined by 40 lakh hectares in the same period of the previous year. However, the acreage under coarse cereals and pulses, the two other major kharif season foodgrains, declined by 14 lakh hectares and 11 lakh hectares, respectively, pulling down their respective acreage by 6.5% and 9.1% each. Among commercial crops, the highest increase in acreage was in cotton where the sown area went up by 10 lakh hectares (9.2%), followed by oilseeds by 6 lakh hectares (3.3%) and sugarcane by 1 lakh hectares (3%).

The disparate trends in the acreage sown is also expected to impact on output and the overall prospects of the kharif crop. The first advance estimates of the production of foodgrains, released in mid-September, puts total foodgrain production at 123.9 million tonnes, which is 3 million tonnes more and 3.1% higher than the foodgrain production in the last kharif season. While rice production is expected to go up by 6 million tonnes, or 8.4%, to 87.1 million tonnes, the output of the other two major foodgrains, namely coarse cereals and pulses, is expected to decline by 2 million tonnes (6.2%) and 0.7 million tonnes (9.7%), respectively.

In the case of commercial crops, the production of oilseeds and cotton will pick up in the current kharif season while that of sugarcane will go down marginally. While the increase in oilseed production is expected to go up only marginally by 0.4 million tonnes (0.2%), that of cotton will go up by a more significant 21 lakh bales (6.2%). However, sugarcane production is expected to go down by 7.8 million tonnes (2.2%).

Another positive thing about the bountiful southwest monsoon is the good storage levels in the reservoirs. Mid-September numbers show that the water level in the 81 major reservoirs of the country was 83% of the full reservoir level, which is 119% of the storage levels last year and 129% of the average storage level in the last 10 years.

This bodes well for irrigation of the rabi crop, and especially the production of wheat.