Fluctuations in grain output

In a year when certain parts of the country are supposed to have experienced a severe drought, food production is estimated to have touched a record level of 205.9 million tonnes. The scaling of this new peak in 1999-2000 probably says as much about the resilience of Indian agriculture as it does about the exaggerated reports of the scale of the rainfall deficiency last year - though it must be admitted that the areas which were afflicted by a drought (Gujarat, Rajasthan and parts of Andhra Pradesh) are not the main contributors to grain production.

Still, it is a fact that conditions in 1999 were not particularly conducive to agriculture - the Orissa cyclone being the most unfavourable factor - and yet the harvest of cereals and pulses in 1999-2000 is now estimated to be 1.4 per cent higher than the output of 203 million tonnes in 1998-99. This is not a minor achievement considering that only a few months ago the forecast of food production was just 199.1 million tonnes - a two per cent decline from the output the year before. (The latest estimate of production is the ``Fourth Advance Estimate" and by the time the final figures are out by the end of the year, the picture may well be different.)

As the accompanying Table indicates, the biggest increase over 1998-99 has been in the production of wheat, with rice output too showing a rise. Indeed, while in February this year (in the Economic Survey), wheat production was projected to show a decline of two million tonnes, it is now estimated to have increased by 3.6 million tonnes. The defects in the data collection machinery must place a question mark on such substantial revisions, though for the present one has no choice but to believe that the data are accurate.

While the two main cereals have shown a rise in production (which along with the new subsidy regime has contributed to overflowing godowns of the Food Corporation of India), the coarse cereals and, more importantly, pulses, continue to exhibit a fluctuating production pattern. It is not just coarse cereals and pulses which show an up and down pattern, grain production as a whole has shown fluctuations in the second half of the 1990s.

The latest revision of production estimates for 1999-2000 - announced on the same day the Central Statistical Organisation put out its revised estimates of a GDP growth of 6.4 per cent for the year - may well lead to a further revision (upwards) of overall growth last year.

In February the CSO had placed the 1999-2000 growth of the agricultural sector (which includes production of non-food crops, forestry and fisheries and relates to expansion of value-added and not production volumes) at just 0.8 per cent.

The revised estimates have now upped growth in this sector to 1.3 per cent. In case the impact of the new estimates of grain production has not been included in the recent revision of GDP, then it is quite likely that GDP growth in 1999-2000 will later be placed at even higher than 6.4 per cent. That for now must remain in the realm of uncertainty because while food crop output has been revised upwards, the output of most non-food crops (oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane) has been marginally lowered.

Finally, while there is reason to feel satisfied with the harvest of food crops in 1999-2000 the production rise must be seen in some perspective. First, in spite of setting a new record, grain production fell short of the target of 210 million tonnes set for the year. Second, the growth of both total grain production and crop yields decelerated in the Nineties, as compared to the pace of growth in the Eighties.

This deceleration is unlikely to have reversed itself even with the new figures of an increase and not decrease in production last year. So the concerns about the trends in agricultural production during the Nineties are going to be carried into the first decade of the 21st century as well.