The bad news behind more paddy

MSP has skewed the cropping pattern towards more water-intensive crops

Did you know that in the last 30 years, the area under food-grains in the country has shrunk? It has fallen to about 122.65 million hectares in 2015-16 from 131.16 million hectares in 1983-84.

But, interestingly, the area under rice and wheat has gone up.

In 1983-84, of the total area under food-grains, rice was sown on 31 per cent of the land (41.24 million hectares); this stands at about 35 per cent (43.39 million hectares) now. The area under wheat is up from 18.8 per cent (24.67 million hectares) to 25 per cent (30.23 million hectares).

India’s cropping pattern has undergone an enormous shift.

Coarse cereals, once sown on 40 per cent of the land under food-grains, are now cultivated only on 20 per cent of the area. Farmers have shifted to crops where returns are better.

In case of rice and wheat (as also sugar cane), the government procurement at MSP is effective in many states.

The sharp increase in the support price for these two crops over years, is also a reason why many farmers shifted. While in the 1990s, the increase in MSP in rice and wheat was just about ₹20-40/quintal a year, over the last decade, it has increased to about ₹50-150/quintal.

Farmers have found interest in cash crops such as sugar-cane and cotton too in the last few decades, because of increased demand and prices. Sample this: Between 1983-84 and 2015-16, the total area under sugar-cane increased from 3.11 million hectares to 4.95 million hectares, and that under cotton, from 7.72 million hectares to 11.87 million hectares. Oilseeds too have seen their share go up.

What’s wrong?

The cropping pattern is skewed towards water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat, sugar-cane and cotton now. Increased dependence on irrigated farming can deplete water resources, and lead to soil degradation and deterioration in water quality, as indicated recently by the Centre’s think-tank, NITI Aayog.

The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, an international non-governmental organisation), in a report titled, ‘Living waters - Conserving the source of Life’, indicates that to produce a kilogram of rice, 3,000-5,000 litres of water is required and for wheat, about 900 litres. For 1 kg of sugar, it is 1,500-3,000 litres and for cotton, 7,000-29,000 litres.

But, many arid areas of the country, be it north Karnataka or central Maharashtra, take up sugar-cane and cotton cultivation, putting immense stress on the soil and water resources, say environmentalists. Excessive monoculture has led to increase in pest and disease attack on crops which, in turn, has resulted in increased use of pesticides, they add.

“In Telangana, for the type of its soil and the amount of water available, only 17 lakh acres are suitable for cotton cultivation, but, today 45 lakh acres in the State is under cotton,” says G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. In Maharashtra, while around 100 lakh acres of land is under cotton, only 45-50 lakh acres is actually suitable for cotton crop, he adds.

The dependence on canals, borewells or other sources of irrigation for sugarcane and cotton has increased manifold in recent years. In 1950-51, while only 67 per cent of area under sugar was dependent on irrigation, today almost 95 per cent is irrigated. In cotton too, a third of the area is under irrigation (up from 8 per cent in 1950-51).

So, why do farmers go for sugarcane or cotton?

In sugarcane, there is assured procurement by sugar mills at the government-fixed FRP. The investment is high but so is the return, a farmer activist told BusinessLine.

In cotton, too, it is the returns that motivate farmers.

G.V. Ramanjaneyulu, recollected what a farmer from Telangana once told him - “If cotton succeeds even once in three years, l will still recover my investment, but in millets, even if it’s a good crop for four years, I will not recover my investment”.

Price deficiency payment

NITI Aayog recently released a three-year action plan. One section of the paper focusses on measures to ensure doubling of farmers’ income. It highlights the need to bring reforms in MSP indicating that it has distorted the cropping pattern. Its limited reach both in terms of commodities procured and the geographical area over which it extends, has also been criticised.

NITI Aayog suggests the system of ‘Price Deficiency Payment’. While at one end, the MSP will continue for need-based procurement, for other crops, a subsidy will be given which will make good (say, to a maximum of 10 per cent) the loss faced by the farmer in case of price falling below a threshold price (which will be linked to MSP), says the think tank.

The advantage will be that, one, it will not require procurement by the government, thereby preventing the accumulation of unwanted stocks, and two, the incentive can spread to more crops, explains NITI Aayog.

Farmers need to be incentivised to grow millets and pulses, no doubt. But it has to be a comprehensive approach of reducing the cost of cultivation as well as ensuring better returns.

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