Is the Modi Govt About to Receive Another Weather-Wheat Blow?

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Is the Modi Govt About to Receive Another Weather-Wheat Blow?

The chickens have come home to roost: the effects of  a string of mismanaged wheat policies have now further been exacerbated by the erratic weather.

With general elections less than three weeks away, reports from the northern wheat belts are raising concerns. Inclement weather is adding to a crisis in wheat stocks triggered by official mishandling.

As Delhi was experiencing its hottest March day, over 4° above average, the upper Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh were covered with fresh snow. The blizzard was so strong that the Manali-Leh highway remains blocked off, paralysing life and transportation. A total of 168 roads have been closed off in Himachal Pradesh alone. These include three national highways.

Now, the lower regions in the north have all been hit with rainfall, stormy winds and hail. Areas in Haryana like Ambala experienced hard winds while the region from Mewat to Gurugram experienced light rain. Meanwhile, the Meteorological department has predicted the continuation of rain and snow for a couple of days, due to a “fresh western disturbance” with rainfall to continue in the lower regions until April 5. Chandigarh reported 8.6 mm of rain with severe winds which uprooted trees, right after the city had its highest recorded temperature for March this Frida,  touching 34.5° C. The IMD also reported winds reaching 60 kilometres per hour across various regions. Currently, Patiala, Ludhiana, Sangrur and Nawanshahr in Punjab and Kaithal, Hisar, Karnal and Jindal in Haryana are on a severe weather alert.

And looming on the horizon is a heat wave.

Now where does wheat come into the picture? All these regions, mainly in Punjab and Haryana, are the wheat bowl of India. Extreme weather events like record March heat, followed by rainfall, hail and strong winds will be detrimental to the almost ready wheat crop.

Before we proceed, let’s look at the crop damages. Many districts in Punjab from Ludhiana, Pathankot, Hoshiarpur, Muktasar to parts of Ambala have all been hit with the erratic weather. Kangra and Una reported heavy losses in wheat and vegetables. In fact, many areas in the wheat-growing north have experienced lodging of the standing wheat crop, which will reduce the yield at harvest time.

At the start of the Rabi season, wheat crops were already affected due to higher temperatures. Part of wheat growing Madhya Pradesh has also reported stunted growth due to higher temperatures in November-December 2023.

All this comes at a time when farmers in the wheat belt were expecting a bumper harvest. The past two years’ wheat harvests have suffered on account of a heat wave and erratic weather. The external pressures goaded the government to ban wheat exports especially at a time when wheat prices were skyrocketing in the previous years.

This season too, the government has issued notifications to all wheat traders and stockholders to report stocks, perhaps fearing another wheat shortage.

Another crop, apple, offers a deeper insight into the weather patterns. This year too, due to low chill and extreme heat conditions, the flowering in Himachal Pradesh has been affected. Many regions are reporting more leaf growth and abnormal flowering. This heralds danger bells for farmers of the region relying on traditional agri-seasons.

Now how does all this spell trouble for the government? Apart from being a litmus test for the PM’s flagship crop insurance program yet again, India is also undergoing a food crisis at a time when Indian food reserves are at the lowest level in 16 years. And the pressure to feed more than 800 million Indians every month is hanging over its head too.

Hoping to combat rising food inflation and wheat price inflation in the run up to the election, the Modi government has released public stocks. This sale/drawing down has caused wheat stocks to fall to 9.7 millions tonnes, a new low, down from 11.7 million tonnes.

The government has also arguably mismanaged the supply as – amidst the food crisis and hyper food inflation in 2023 – it sold over 9 millions tonnes to private sector. This is its highest ever sale to the private sector. Experts are still wondering why this was required.

But the worst of all sins was the Modi government’s reduction of wheat procurement to about 25 millions tonnes from 34 million tonnes in 2022-23. These two factors alone could have led to the wheat inflation and shortage problem.

So finally, all the chickens have come home to roost: the effects of  a string of mismanaged wheat policies have now further been exacerbated by the erratic weather. If this crisis worsens, the government is likely blame the rain and weather. But one needs to also carefully look at the government’s own role in creating this wheat mess. If left unmanaged , it could present a serious but avoidable challenge for food security to India and also the world.

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