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Wednesday, Dec 25, 2002

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Wheat output may plunge on poor sowing, climate

Harish Damodaran

NEW DELHI, Dec. 24

THE country's wheat production this year is slated to plunge to around 65 million tonnes (mt), making it the worst harvest in the last seven years.

The not-so-buoyant outlook springs from the significant fall in area sown as well as the persistence of abnormally high temperatures in the main Indo-Gangetic wheat belt during the current rabi season.

According to the Agriculture Ministry, the cumulative area planted under wheat has so far been 142.82 lakh hectares (lh), compared to last year's corresponding coverage of 160.82 lh. The normal area under wheat is about 267 lh.

The acreage drop has been especially pronounced in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In MP, only 17.4 lh have been sown, which is about seven lh lower than last year's level. Considering that even last year's area was 15 per cent below the normal average of 40 lh for wheat in the State, there is every likelihood of total acreage not exceeding 25 lh this time round.

Similarly, a mere 7.66 lh has been covered so far in Rajasthan, representing a eight lh decline over the previous year's progressive coverage. Going by current trends, it appears that the total area sown will fall short of the State's normal acreage of 26 lh by roughly 15 lh — the same level of shortfall as in MP. An area reduction of 15 lh each in MP and Rajasthan would alone translate into a combined dip of about six mt in wheat output.

The situation is not much better in Uttar Pradesh either, where the reported coverage of 45.5 lh is down by five lh from last year's progressive sowing. Although the normal area under wheat is about 90 lh and sowing in many parts of the State continues well up to the first half of January, there are reasons to expect a lower output this time round.

Firstly, the payment crisis engulfing sugar mills has delayed crushing operations, preventing farmers from harvesting cane in time (which occupies an area of 15 lakh hectares in UP) and vacating their fields for planting wheat. Farmers will, therefore, at best be able to sow short-duration wheat of 90-100 days, as against the regular higher yielding 130-140 days maturity varieties.

Secondly, the prevailing high temperatures in the entire Indo-Gangetic plains has raised doubts over feasibility of even late planting of wheat. ``The winter has not really set in this year and temperatures are 4-5 degrees above normal,'' said the Director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), Dr S. Nagarajan.

Worse, there has been hardly any winter rain this year in the main wheat growing tracts, with total rainfall deficiency (relative to long period average) in the post-monsoon period from October 1 to December 18, being 85 per cent in West UP, 59 per cent in East UP, 94 per cent in East Rajasthan, 69 per cent in West Rajasthan, 83 per cent in Punjab, 85 per cent in Haryana and 64 per cent in West MP.

This, along with the South-West monsoon's virtual failure across northern and central India, has caused significant soil moisture stress even in Punjab and Haryana, where the crop is grown under assured irrigation. In these two States — where the bulk of wheat is sown prior to November 25 — planting is almost complete, with reported coverage of 31.5 lh in Punjab and 21.5 lh in Haryana. This is more-or-less on par with the corresponding normal acreages of 33.8 lh and 22.9 lh, respectively.

Although a Western disturbance across North-West India has led to scattered rainfall in the last couple of days — and more importantly, brought down temperatures to near-winter levels — Dr Nagarajan felt that it would be unrealistic to expect the late onset of winter to sustain low temperatures beyond mid-February.

``This is an abnormal year. We have not had such high temperatures at this time of the year before, barring perhaps 1973 or 1974. We have advised farmers to stretch their irrigation schedules, so that instead of giving the normal 4-5 full irrigations, they may distribute the same water over 6-7 irrigations. By doing this, they can use water as a vehicle to moderate the higher soil temperatures, which may otherwise cut short the crop's maturity,'' Dr Nagaraj added.

The last time wheat production fell below 65 mt was in 1995-96, when it touched 62.10 mt. Since then, output has fluctuated, amounting to 69.35 mt in 1996-97, 66.35 mt in 1997-98, 71.29 mt in 1998-99, 76.37 mt in 1999-2000 (record), 68.76 mt in 2000-01 and 71.47 mt in 2001-02.

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