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Delay in monsoon hampers rice sowing

August 05, 2012

WITH the delay in monsoon rains, rice sowing is in trouble in Punjab. By the end of July, the province had cultivated only 64 per cent of its 4.2 million acres target — putting 36 per cent in the late sowing category.

A part of it might never be sown at all if the situation does not improve in the next few days.

What is more distressing for farmers is that meteorological forecasts for August are not encouraging either. The meteorological officials have warned of even August being a less rainy month.

The nursery is already mature but cannot be taken to the fields because of lack of rains and water. A traveler in the central Punjab, the main hub of rice production, could see the nurseries going yellowish in the June-July heat and absence of enough rain.

The governments (federal and provincial) need to improve the meteorological forecast system. Two months ago, the forecasts warned of up to 15 per cent more rains during this monsoon, spinning federal and provincial flood control paraphernalia into action. Till three weeks ago, Punjab was assembling and training manpower for flood controlling and mitigating measures. Within a fortnight, it is getting ready to deal with draught after meteorological officials’ assessment that rains might be actually 30 per cent less.

The fluctuation of 45 per cent within a span of few weeks is a recipe for disaster in agricultural terms. No farmer can plan crops under such uncertain circumstances. Thus, the government needs to figure out what went wrong, where and why?

Rain forecast is more crucial for rice for two reasons; canal supplies are minimum in the area and rains, along with water, bring weather conditions necessary for the plant growth. Canals in the rice growing area are designed to cater for minimum needs of the crop.

For the last two weeks, the canals are being run up, in some cases, over and above their capacity. All five crucial canals (upper and lower Chenab, upper and lower Jhelum, MR Link) having a capacity of 26,200 cusecs are being run on 27,000 cusecs since June 21. But farmers have still not been able to sow rice because the second part (rains) of sowing process is missing.

Apart from water and natural nutrition, rains also bring cloud cover hampering evaporation in the field and help maintaining water levels. That is why they are crucial — turning forecast about them into a decisive factor for rice sowing and early growth. Without rain, there would be no rice.

Based on the earlier meteorological rains forecast, Punjab water planners diverted early water to South Punjab for cotton sowing and watering. They were confident that they would have abundance of water by end of July, supplemented by additional rains. Everything stands topsy turvy now, as they term the situation “critical for rice crop.”

Of the entire rice spectrum, the basmati may suffer the most.

Though it is still a fear because Punjab has not so far calculated variety-wise acreage, the pattern of last month’s rains and reports from the area reinforce such fears. The 15 basmati producing districts of central Punjab have received least showers when it actually rained during July. Some of these areas fall outside irrigated areas and are totally dependent upon rain. They may miss the crop completely.

In addition to these areas, other barani (rain-fed) areas would also miss it. In upper Punjab, where land is uneven, low areas where water stands after the rains have been occupied by rice.

Not this time. Apart from natural causes, the government has almost foreclosed the possibility of tubewell usage in these areas. With diesel costing over Rs100 per litre and electricity virtually non-existent in rural areas, the only option is canal water and rain.

Rice being an export crop also has its own dimensions and financial cost. The crop would assume added financial importance this year given international conditions. Next door, India is headed for rice crop failure for almost the same reasons as in Pakistan. Out of 600 districts, 300 have been declared drought-hit. Without Indian rice, international market is bound to rise.

Rice being a staple for a huge Indian population would also see its prices going up even in Indian domestic market. Though India holds massive stocks, still a crop failure has its own psychological impact on the market and drives prices up. Apart from Indian failure, international grain market is also rising. The World Bank delivered a warning when it said it may be as a repeat of 2008 spike – when grain price rose by 135 per cent within a matter of few months and pushed international poverty figures close to a billion. Both these factors could have opened a new window for Pakistani rice, had we taken rains right. But that has not been the case, at least so far.