Agri Business

Kharif outlook: Ahead of sowing season, growers worried about Covid-19 lockdowns

Vishwanath Kulkarni Bengaluru | Updated on June 02, 2021

The South-West monsoon is crucial for agricultural production in the country since the Kharif season output depends on it

Pandemic spread in rural areas, shortage of labour, seeds quality are major issues

While the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast a normal monsoon this year, the ongoing lockdowns in various States have left the farming community worried.

In particular, the spread of the pandemic in rural areas is causing concern, but whether it will impact Kharif sowing will be known as the season, which began on Tuesday, evolves over the next few weeks.

While a section of the stakeholders feels that Covid in the rural areas is unlikely to impact kharif sowing, farmers say they are feeling the impact of the lockdown.

Growers’ challenges

Though the agriculture sector falls under the exempted category, lockdown restrictions have triggered challenges such as shortage of labour and input supplies, besides affecting the income of farmers, who have found it difficult to sell their produce.

During the current kharif season, farmers will also bear the brunt of higher fuel prices, which is set to push up cultivation costs.

Rohtash Mal, Chairman, EM3 Agri-Services, said higher diesel prices have resulted in a 25 per cent increase in rentals for farm machinery.

 

Duli Chand, a farmer leader from Kota in Rajasthan, said rentals are up by 20-25 per cent for both the rabi harvesting and kharif ploughing season.

"Conventional tractors are charging Rs 600 per acre as against Rs 500 in the same period last year. Disc harrow, which is more suitable for black soil as it can turn up soil from further depths, on the other hand, charges Rs 900 per acre compared with Rs 700 earlier," Chand said. “Right now, it looks like Covid may not have an impact on kharif sowing,” said B. V. Mehta, Executive Director, Solvent Extractors’ Association of India, the apex trade body for edible oils.

 

Agriculture is the only sector that has performed much better than others during the Covid since last year. “I don't think agriculture should face any problem this year also,” Mehta said.

“It is too early to comment on the impact of the spread of Covid to rural areas in the kharif season,” said A Narayanamoorthy, former member of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).

Bullish input vendors

Input vendors are also bullish about kharif prospects. Sailesh C Mehta, Chairman and Managing Director, Deepak Fertilisers and Petrochemicals Corporation, said the demand for fertilisers is expected to be strong in this kharif season as farmers are placed much better than in the last season. They are willing to spend more money for quality products that could lead to better yield.

The lockdown announced by certain States could pose some challenges, but agriculture inputs and implements are covered under the Essential Commodities Act and so they are exempted from restrictions on movement of goods, Mehta said.

In States like Kerala, the closing down of outlets selling agricultural produce during the lockdown has hit the timely availability of inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, and soil ameliorants such as lime and pesticides, said K.J. Oneil, former Deputy Director of Agriculture.

Allow hassle-free farming’

It was pointed out that good seeds give 20-25 per cent higher yield, provided there is a favourable climate as well.

In particular, the timely application of these inputs is a requisite for good paddy yield. But the emerging situation of the pandemic is likely to affect productivity this Kharif season.

Oneil said State governments should seriously consider allowing agricultural commodity outlets to function in line with other essential establishments such as medical shops, milk supply and eateries during the time of restrictions to enable hassle-free farming activities for all crops.

Kharif sowing of crops such as maize, green gram (moong), cotton and groundnut, among others, have begun in States such as Karnataka and farmers have covered an area of 3.05 lakh hectares as on May 31 compared with 2.96 lakh hectares in the year-ago period, officials said.

However, the onset of the monsoon, which usually sets in on June 1 over the Kerala coast, has been delayed till Thursday (June 3), according to the IMD.

Sourcing seeds

The spread of covid in rural areas coupled with host of other issues triggered by lockdown could affect kharif plantings, said Kurbur Shantakumar, a farmer leader in Karnataka.

Farmers are finding it difficult to source the required seeds and inputs due to the restrictions on timings for shops selling such produce in view of the ongoing lockdown, that has coincided with the commencement of the planting season.

Seed companies, too, are facing challenges in distributing seeds in hinterlands. “Unlike last season when we faced similiar conditions, a large number of people in the value chain have been impacted by Covid-19 this year. Dealers and staff involved in the supply chain are affected,” said Mithun Chand, Executive Director of Kaveri Seeds.

However, seed companies have deployed additional resources to ensure ample supply of seeds to farmers. Another key problem that farmers face is spurious seeds and illegal Bt seeds.

In Andhra Pradesh, groundnut and chilli farmers are facing short supply of quality seeds. "For a large number of Rayalaseema farmers, groundnut is the main crop. If they miss out a season, they miss out the whole agricultural season. Unlike their peers in other regions, they don't have an option to switch to other crops," Keshava Rao, President of Andhra Pradesh Rythu Sangham, said.

Labour shortage

In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, uncertainty looms over labour and inputs availability as the sowing season begins. This has unsettled the farmers, who foresee labour shortage during the sowing season.

“A good number of farm workers have left for their native places in States such as Bihar. We don’t know whether they will be back by the time sowing begins,” said an executive of a seed company, not wishing to be identified.

Horticultural farmers too are facing challenges. "Last year, mango and banana farmers could not sell their produce. They could not recover the investments they made. The government should come to the rescue of horticultural farmers," Rao said.

Horticulture growers hit

Narayanamoorthy said that farm incomes, especially that of horticulture farmers, have been hit as the lockdown hurt the demand for fruits and vegetables with the disruption in the supply chain.

The impact of lockdown in States such as Maharashtra and Karnataka, which have a higher share of horticulture, needs to be assessed, he said.

While the Centre has hiked the credit target for agriculture sector, the focus should be on strengthening the disbursal mechanism this year, Narayanamoorthy said.

Agriculture credit target for the current fiscal has been increased by a tenth to Rs 16.5 lakh crore.

Telangana Rythu Sangham General Secretary T Sagar has, on the other hand, wants Telangana to announce a comprehensive credit plan for the season. “In the absence of access to institutional credit, farmers have taken loans worth Rs 20,000 crore from private lenders at a very high interest rate,” he said.

Dues to farmers

Similarly, Kurbur Shantakumar, a farmer leader in Karnataka, said fresh credit disbursal should be ensured to even farmers who have not been able to service their earlier loans, to tide over the crisis.

Some States such as Karnataka owe farmers about Rs 1,200 crore towards payment for procurement of paddy and ragi. Cane arrears by the southern State is Rs 1,500 crore, said Shantakumar demanding immediate pay out. Farmers and dairy sector workers should also be vaccinated on a priority basis, he added.

Farmers want the government to make enough Budgetary allocations to ensure sufficient supplies of quality seeds and fertilisers. "The Government should waive off outstanding loans for small farmers and help them start afresh," Rao said.

Cyclone Yaas effect

In Bengal, the second wave of the pandemic is not likely to affect the kharif sowing. But, cyclone Yaas, which is believed to have affected as many as six rice-growing districts of the State, might pose some challenges.

According to Pradip Kumar Mazumder, Chief Advisor (Agriculture) to the Chief Minister, the State government is trying to set right the damage caused by the ingression by saline water in some of the coastal areas following the cyclone. Four out of the six districts are believed to have been badly affected.

“There will be no adverse effect because of the pandemic, but we have been hit by Cyclone Yaas recently… Otherwise, kharif sowing will be as per our plan. Our farmers are very resilient, they will not allow anything to go uncultivated,” Mazumder told BusinessLine.

In Kerala, production during the Kharif season is likely to decline as the second wave of Covid has created several problems for farmers, said Oneil.

(With inputs from Vinayak, Mangaluru; Suresh P Iyengar, Mumbai; KV Kurmanath, Hyderabad; TV Jayan, New Delhi; and Shobha Roy, Kolkata)

(This is part of a series of Kharif Outlook reports that have been appearing in these columns. The reports will continue to appear over the next few days.)

Published on June 02, 2021

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