Amid the farmers’ protests that are showing no signs of resolution, it is necessary to note two positive developments. The first is bumper harvests in 2019-20 and, most likely, also 2020-21, on the back of successive good monsoons and extended winters. India has been fortunate, unlike other major producer countries that have experienced dry weather conditions. La Nina has led to a paring of production estimates of maize and soyabean for 2020-21 even in the US. But the same weather event has proved favourable for India. Low temperatures, coupled with groundwater tables recharged from the abundant monsoon rains, promise excellent rabi crops of wheat, mustard, chickpea, red lentil, field pea, potato, cumin seed, coriander, onion and garlic due for harvest from next month.
That links up with the second encouraging piece of news: International prices. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation’s world food price index has hit a 78-month high in January. The reasons for it include the tightening global supplies across agri-commodities, steady normalisation of demand with most countries unlocking their economies after May, and substantial buying by China seeking to build up its strategic food reserves. Food inflation is a worry not just for China. Even Argentina has temporarily suspended maize export registrations, while Russia has clamped taxes on wheat and other grain shipments. Not only has India’s agriculture production been relatively unaffected, as a report in this newspaper has shown, the country’s export of farm produce has registered a 9.8 per cent year-on-year growth during April-December 2020. The fact that this has happened despite overall merchandise exports falling 15.5 per cent — agricultural operations continued largely unimpeded even during the peak COVID-induced lockdown phase till June — is a story worth projecting in these turbulent times.
During the last rabi season, Indian farmers harvested bumper crops, but could not benefit due to the demand destruction wrought by the lockdown. The coming harvesting season affords an opportunity for them to take advantage of both higher production and prices. It also offers a political opening for the Narendra Modi government. Farmers are rational economic agents. There is no better balm to soothe their frayed nerves than good prices. If they get that today, their hostility to the farm reform laws may considerably reduce. The Modi government should use the luck from the weather-enabled bumper production in India and an ongoing global price recovery to reach out to farmers — in a manner better than it has done till now.