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Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Agriculture’s own future lies in becoming more productive and adding value outside the farms

Agriculture acted as shock-absorber for economy, especially post-Covid lockdown. It may not play that role again this year.

By: Editorial |
Updated: September 8, 2021 9:46:41 am
A three-week long dry spell from around June 20 resulted in farmers missing the main kharif sowing window between mid-June and mid-July.

The southwest monsoon hasn’t turned out great this year, unlike in 2019 and 2020. Rainfall in the season (June-September) has so far been 7.9 per cent below the historical average for the country. But more than the aggregate figure, it’s the temporal distribution that has raised question marks. A three-week long dry spell from around June 20 resulted in farmers missing the main kharif sowing window between mid-June and mid-July. The monsoon did revive from July 12-13 and so did plantings. But August recorded 24 per cent rainfall deficiency. Even if the September rains match the India Meteorological Department’s “above-normal” prediction, it would primarily benefit the rabi season crop. And with current water levels in major reservoirs lower than a year ago, not much hope should be placed on a bumper rabi harvest offsetting the likely kharif losses.

The farm sector grew 4.3 per cent in 2019-20 and 3.6 per cent in 2020-21, more than the overall GDP, at 4 per cent and minus 7.3 per cent, respectively. Agriculture acted as a shock-absorber for the economy, especially in the post-Covid lockdown period. The government’s latest Periodic Labour Force Survey data for July 2019-June 2020 shows the proportion of those engaged in farming activity increasing to 45.6 per cent, from 42.5 per cent in 2018-19. As a report in this newspaper has pointed out, this marks a reversal of the historical trend of agriculture’s declining share in total employment. 2019-20 and 2020-21 were both crisis years for the Indian economy, which registered a sharp slide in growth even pre Covid and then went into contraction. While that led to job losses across most sectors — be it manufacturing, construction, hotels, tourism, transport or retail trade — agriculture could absorb some of the labour that got shed. And that, in turn, was made possible by the back-to-back good monsoons.

The monsoon’s performance makes a repeat of the above story unlikely this year. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, agricultural employment, which averaged 124 million during May-July, fell to 116 million in August. That clearly has to do with the fields not receiving rain when required. Simply put, agriculture cannot play saviour this time. With the worst of Covid hopefully behind us, other engines of the economy have to start firing. India has to resume and go beyond its normal growth trajectory, wherein jobs are created more in manufacturing, construction and services. Agriculture’s own future lies in becoming more productive and adding value outside the farms.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 8, 2021 under the title ‘Not enough rain’.

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