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Clouds over crop area — Kharif sowing toll heaviest for soya

Harish Damodaran

The country may have to import substantial quantities of pulses and edible oils this year to meet its consumption requirement, which even in normal years exceeds indigenous output.

NEW DELHI, July 17

THE first indications of a drought-like situation developing in the country are available now, with the Agriculture Ministry admitting to a significant 40-50 per cent reduction in the area sown under kharif coarse cereals, oilseeds and pulses.

"If there are rains within a week or 10 days, there may still be scope for (further) sowing to take place. However, the crop productivity may not reach satisfactory levels'', the Ministry has said in its latest internal assessment carried out on Monday.

According to the Krishi Bhawan, the progressive acreage so far under kharif oilseeds has been just 44.7 lakh hectares, a 50.5 per cent decline over the corresponding last year's coverage of 90.3 lakh hectares. The normal area sown under kharif oilseeds is 155 lakh hectares, comprising mainly soyabean (64 lakh hectares) and groundnut (58 lakh hectares).

The drop is particularly sharp for soyabean, with the cumulative acreage so far touching 17.6 lakh hectares, as against last year's corresponding area of 50.9 lakh hectares. The Ministry fears that production of soyabean "may go down to an all-time low''. The fall in groundnut area has been less pronounced - from 27.9 lakh hectares to 20.3 lakh hectares - mainly because Gujarat (especially, the Saurashtra belt) has received good monsoon rains this time.

The situation is equally bleak in pulses, with the area covered so far being only 18 lakh hectares, against last year's corresponding level of 30.2 lakh hectares and the normal of 103 lakh hectares.

The upshot of this is that the country may have to import substantial quantities of pulses and edible oils this year to meet its consumption requirement, which even in normal years exceeds indigenous output. During 2001-02 (April-March), import of pulses hit a record 21.77 lakh tonnes (valued at Rs 3,155.66 crore), with edible oil imports amounting to 42.14 lakh tonnes (Rs 6,474.48 crore).

In the case of kharif coarse cereals, the total area covered so far, at 74.4 lakh hectares, has been 41 per cent below last year's corresponding coverage. The progressive acreage under maize (corn) has dropped from 32.6 lakh hectares to 19.1 lakh hectares, while falling from 32.3 lakh hectares to 20.2 lakh hectares for jowar and from 55.7 lakh hectares to 31.4 lakh hectares for bajra. The Ministry has said that in Rajasthan alone, only 16 lakh hectares have been covered under bajra, compared to last year's 30 lakh hectares, and this loss is "irreversible''.

The only crop that has not suffered a real acreage reduction is paddy, with the total reported area so far being 70.8 lakh hectares, which is marginally below last year's corresponding coverage of 71.8 lakh hectares. The normal area under kharif rice is 406 lakh hectares.

But experts say that the acreage levels in paddy may not reflect the real situation. Unlike other crops, the water requirement of paddy does not end just after sowing/transplanting. The crop has to be submerged up to 4-5 inches in water throughout its growth till the grain-filling stage.

In the absence of rains, farmers have to use tubewells (mostly run on diesel) to maintain the required water levels. This is a costly option, considering that a tractor typically consumes 2 litres of diesel for powering a tubewell every hour and it takes up to six hours to cover an acre. Even assuming that five such irrigations are undertaken to make up for inadequate rains, it would cost farmers an extra Rs 1,200 per acre at today's prices.

"But even if diesel is used, the groundwater levels are very low this year. As a result, most tubewells in Punjab are operating at 40-50 per cent efficiency'', Dr K.S. Aulakh, Vice-Chancellor, Punjab Agricultural University told Business Line.

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