India’s wheat crop this year has been hit because of excessive rainfall in the crucial month of March, when the crop enters the vital grain-filling stage and gets ready for harvesting in April.

Last year, the excessive temperatures in March, the steepest since the country’s temperature record-keeping began in 1901, impacted wheat production which was lower than the expected production, by around 4.5 million tonnes. India was aiming for 111.3 million tonnes of wheat production in 2022, but the final realisation was not more than 106.8 million tonnes.

In 2023, India was aiming for production of 112 million tonnes of wheat production, 5% higher than last year. It had sown wheat over 34 million hectares across the country, which is marginally higher than last year.

But as the crop was getting ready, it suffered a major blow because of the excess rainfall in several important wheat-producing states.

For instance, Punjab and Haryana, received unexpected rainfall which was in excess by 205% and 220% respectively, between March 1 and April 3, according to data from India Meteorological Department. The two states accounted for almost 74% of total wheat procured by India for its public distribution system in 2022.

Talking about the impact of the unseasonal rainfall, Gurvinder Singh, director of the Department of Agriculture, Punjab, told Mongabay-India that rainfall flattened almost 40% of the 3.5 million hectares of wheat crop in the state and farmers will have to put more manual labour to retrieve the production. In about 100,000 hectares of the wheat growing area of the state, crop loss is between 70% and 100%, he added.

He said that Punjab had a record wheat production of 17 million tonnes in 2021. “But in 2022, it came down to 13.9 million tonnes due to the heat wave. We may not cross last year’s figure this year, too,” he added.

Gurvinder Singh’s other worry is the quality of the crop. The water stagnation in fields, following the excessive rain, means that the moisture level in the final produce is likely to be higher than the permissible limit of 14%.

In Haryana, the other primary wheat producing state, Rohtas Kumar, additional director, Department of Agriculture, Haryana, told Mongabay-India that nearly 100,000 farmers from the state have registered at the e-Fasal Kshatipurti portal, where farmers apply for government benefits, and requested for compensation for their damaged crops. The total amount of compensation requested is for an area of nearly 500,000 hectares.

Kumar said that the wheat crop in Haryana was sown over 2.3 million hectares, which means a little over 20% of the crop area in the state is under stress due to recent rainfall. “The state may not achieve the targeted production of 11 million tonnes,” he said.

In Uttar Pradesh, which, as per the India Meteorological Department, received 251% of excess rainfall between March 1 and April 3, 35,480 hectares area is calculated to have more than 33% of crop loss so far, data released by the state government revealed. The state’s total wheat area this year is close to 9.5 million hectares, the highest in the country.

The damage was also significant in Rajasthan, which received 353% of excess rainfall in March. As per the latest media reports, 388,000 hectares of the wheat crop out of a total sown area of 2.96 million hectares have been impacted due to the untimely rainfall in the state.

A view of a damaged wheat field in Punjab’s Moga district. Punjab and Haryana accounted for almost 74% of total wheat procured by India for its public distribution system in 2022. Credit: Photo by special arrangement

Procurement target

According to recent reports, India Agriculture Commissioner PK Singh, while speaking to media, said that as per initial estimate, about 8%-10% of the wheat crop is estimated to have been damaged due to recent untimely rains and hailstorms in key producing states. But he also asserted that better yield prospects in late-sown areas are expected to make up for the production loss.

However, an agriculture marketing policy expert, Devinder Sharma told Mongabay-India, “I don’t think India is in a position to reach anywhere near its targeted production of 112 million tonnes.” He said the major reason for this is that the rainfall was widespread and frequent in all major wheat-producing states this year. This is unlike last year when the heat wave was limited to parts of northern India. This time, unseasonal rainfall has covered all parts of India.

Sharma said while damage to wheat crops is significant, other major rabi crops too suffered damage due to rough weather, causing huge financial distress to farmers.

The impact of the possible crop loss is already seen in the government’s export policies. Ashok K Meena, chief of India’s procurement agency, Food Corporation of India, said in a press conference on March 28 that the wheat export ban would continue as long as the government does not feel comfortable with domestic supplies. India imposed a wheat ban export last year in May after there were supply concerns for the domestic market in the wake of heat wave-affected wheat season.

As per the data from the union Ministry of Commerce and Industry, India’s wheat export in the fiscal year 2020-’21 was worth $549.6 million, which witnessed a surge of 217% to $1742 million between April 2021 and January 2022.

As per the commerce ministry’s media statement in March 2022, the country was on the way to scaling up wheat export in the last fiscal year when extreme weather put a brake on export.

All eyes will now be on the upcoming procurement season. The big question is whether the centre could meet its wheat procurement target of 35 million tonnes for 2023. In 2022, it fell short of the target due to higher private trade and a fall in wheat production.

The unseasonal rainfall has already delayed harvesting in most parts of Punjab and Haryana – the prime market for centre’s annual procurement. So far, the wheat arrival is very slow in mandis and will likely pick pace by the third week of April.

Wheat being harvested in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. The wheat export reached to $1742 million when the government of India decided to put ban on it. Credit: Yann Forget/Wikimedia Commons

Robust safety-net

Devinder Singh Sekhon, a farmer from Dod village near Jaito in Punjab’s Ferozepur district, told Mongabay-India that he owned three hectares of farm and there was 100% damage to the wheat in his fields.

The situation is more or less the same in several areas of their block. “All eyes are on the state government if they adequately compensate farmers in a timely manner. Otherwise, we are in a very tough situation, he added.

The Punjab government has announced Rs 15,000 per acre as compensation to farmers affected by the rains this year. Opposition parties and farm bodies are demanding an increase in compensation.

Harjeet Singh, head of Global Political Strategy, Climate Action Network International, told Mongabay-India that the recent synthesis report by the UN panel on climate change, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicted more extreme weather events in the near future, as global temperatures rise. It also warned that a narrowing window exists for action to tackle the impacts. Since the impact of extreme weather events is quite visible on Indian agriculture, the time has come for Indian and state governments to take long-term steps to tackle it, he noted.

“It includes scaling up resilience building measures in the agriculture sector, such as improved irrigation facilities, soil and water conservation, better early warning system and farmer training on adaptation to help prepare for the impacts of climate change,” he added.

Sandipan Baksi, director, Foundation for Agrarian Studies in Bengaluru, told Mongabay-India that robust compensation system for farmers is an important aspect in this debate as they are most affected by the extreme weathers.

Farmers are struggling with their wheat crop in Punjab’s Lambi area. Credit: Photo by special arrangement

He said their losses are real irrespective of whether the overall wheat production targets are met or not. It is at this level that crop insurance becomes very important.

But Sandipan said that the existing crop insurance coverage across India is low. The compensation also depends on several other factors, such as the states notifying the areas and crops with the availability of timely yield data.

“To adequately compensate for these types of crop losses, the government may have to act in a manner different from the usual course,” he said

According to him, policy has to ensure that farmers, particularly the small and marginal cultivators, are duly compensated for these unpredictable losses.

In 2022, Foundation for Agrarian Studies pointed out that less than 5% of agricultural households cultivating paddy and wheat had crop insurance in 2012-’13. In 2018-’19, this marginally increased to 8% for paddy and 7% for wheat. The figures were based on National Sample Survey 70th and 77th round data.

Devinder Sharma believes the existing crop insurance scheme has been designed to benefit the private insurance companies rather than the farmers.

“Unless this approach changes, farmers continue to suffer and more so now as extreme weather events are set to be more regular,” he added.

Meanwhile, some experts want to focus on adaption plans too. GV Ramanjaneyulu, executive director at Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad, told Mongabay-India that the central government must work on climate-resilient varieties that do not impact yield and help farmers fight extreme weather conditions.

“The research in the field is very poor right now. We must invest time and energy to adapt to the changing realities. Otherwise, it is difficult for farmers to fight extreme weather conditions,” he added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.