PDS & climate-smart agriculture

The obvious answer is to include more nutritious and climate-resilient crops such as millets and pulses in the PDS while scaling down rice procurement

agriculture, agriculture sector
PDS beneficiaries may be given electronic vouchers (like an e-food coupon in a food court) that can be recharged by the government 3-4 times a year. (IE)

The department of food and public distribution (DoF&PD) and, in particular, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) heaved a sigh of relief that the procurement of wheat so far has crossed 20 million tonnes (mt), a notch higher than last year. Three states—Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh (MP)—have contributed more than 98% to the central pool. Will FCI be able to procure 34 mt as estimated at the beginning of the season? Having recently visited Punjab and MP, my own assessment is that overall procurement of wheat will stop anywhere between 25-30 mt. In Khanna market in Punjab, which is supposed to be Asia’s largest grain market, almost 80% of the purchases are being made by private trade.

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Unseasonal rains have surely damaged the quality of grain in many pockets, and, accordingly, FCI has relaxed its quality parameters to accommodate lustre-loss or shrivelled grain, etc, for procurement. FCI hopes to procure at least 25 mt, which is sufficient for its public distribution system (PDS) needs. In any case, FCI has more than comfortable rice stocks that can provide ample cushion to substitute rice for wheat, if and when the need arises.

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There is, however, uncertainty about the wheat production estimate this year, as was the case last year. Earlier, the ministry of agriculture and farmers’ welfare (MoA&FW) had estimated 112 mt of wheat production. But, after the unseasonal rains, the revised estimate is yet to come.

Punjab, which seems to have faced rough weather just before the harvest time, is also in the process of estimating losses. But, our interactions with the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) and several market functionaries and farmers have given us the impression that production of wheat this year is higher than last year, notwithstanding the unseasonal rains. No wonder, Punjab will be the biggest contributor to wheat procurement.

Uttar Pradesh, which produces almost twice the amount of wheat (about 35 mt) produced by Punjab (about 18 mt), remains a mystery. UP is estimated to procure 3.5 mt of wheat, but so far it has procured a meagre 0.12 mt. Unless it brings a surprise in May and June, the overall wheat procurement may stop well short of even 30 mt.

In any case, there was much to learn from Punjabi farmers during our visit. The wheat crop of those who had done zero tillage and had mulched paddy straw at the time of sowing wheat through Smart Happy Seeders was standing tall even in gusty winds.

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Pavitar Singh Pangli in Ludhiana was expecting a yield of 24 quintals/acre (almost 6 tonnes/ha). But many others, whose crops were lodged due to heavy rains, were expecting much lower yields. Overall, as PAU vice-chancellor, Satbir Singh Gosal and his team of experts told us, on an average, Punjab will get about 20 quintals/acre.

Mulching of paddy straw acts as magic, increasing organic carbon in the soil. This is also being demonstrated on the fields of Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) in Ladhowal, Ludhiana, where a passionate Uttam Kumar was taking care of his wheat crop ready for harvesting. Incidentally, this technology can be a good case for India to show to the agriculture group of G-20. PAU and BISA can lead here as a voice of the Global South.

At the Centre, DoF&PD needs to be complimented for organising a ‘chintan shivir’ under the leadership of secretary Sanjeev Chopra. One of the topics to focus on was how to leverage PDS to offer more nutritious food and also help make Indian agriculture more climate resilient. That’s a great vision, worthy of lauding. The obvious answer, to my understanding, would be to encourage introduction of more nutritious food in PDS that is also climate resilient. Millets, pulses, and oilseeds would fit very well with these twin objectives. Also, one should not hesitate to go beyond these field crops and offer even milk and eggs. But, there are several operational challenges to provide a steady flow of these more nutritious foods.

One suggestion I can make to DoF&PD is to upgrade and declare at least 10% of their 500,000-odd Fair Price Shops as Nutritious Food Hubs (NFHs). These NFHs will have fortified, including bio-fortified, rice, wheat, millets, pulses, oilseeds (especially soyabean products with 40% protein), fortified milk and edible oils, eggs, etc.

PDS beneficiaries may be given electronic vouchers (like an e-food coupon in a food court) that can be recharged by the government 3-4 times a year. Our back of the envelop calculation shows that a family of 4.5 members currently gets a food subsidy of around Rs 8,000/year through rice and wheat under PM Garib Kalyan Yojana. This amount can be loaded to e-vouchers of targeted beneficiaries. The NFHs would be upgraded with government assistance. It would create a demand for more diversified and nutritious food.

But then, the procurement of rice would have to be capped, starting with districts where water table has been depleting alarmingly. For example, Sangrur in Punjab has witnessed a fall of groundwater level by more than 25 metres during 2000-2019. Farmers of such districts could be incentivised to grow millets, pulses, oilseeds, etc, that are climate smart, use much less water and fertilisers, thus saving power and fertiliser subsidies.

The Centre and the states need to join hands to give a special package for carbon credits for growing such crops. Our rough calculations suggest that farmers can be rewarded about Rs 10,000/acre (to be shared equally by the Centre and the states), as these crops would save that much fertiliser subsidy of the Centre and power subsidy of the states.

The chintan shivir of DoF&PD will have long-lasting effect on the agri-food system only if such ideas are further explored for rolling out through 50,000 Nutritious Food Hubs.

The writer is distinguished professor, ICRIER

Views are personal

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First published on: 01-05-2023 at 04:15 IST