Farm workers winnowing rice in the field

(Suman Reddy D/TOI,BCCL,VIJAYAWADA)

For many of us, nostalgia refers to the sound of a pressure cooker whose whistles signal different stages of the cooking process. This familiar sound has helped us tune ourselves to know exactly when to rush to the table and treat ourselves to the intoxicating smell of hot, steaming rice, hungry in anticipation. And no matter how often side-dishes change day to day, a large majority of us understand the stability that rice presents to us at the dinner table.

Rice as a staple food has been a cornerstone for much of Indian culture for thousand of years — in fact, even as early as 5000 BC! Some Indian archaeologists further argue that rice cultivation might even have started in the Ganges River Valley. Skip forward a millennia, and now you can go to pretty much any place in the country and see families or restaurants cooking some variation of the dish.

And while the crop being this commonplace places a large demand on our country, we certainly seem to be doing an excellent job at the supply. Currently, India is the second larger producer of rice, producing a massive 177.9 million tonnes of the crop in 2019, as per the World Economic Forum.

To add to this, rice is extremely popular globally, feeding about half the worldwide population — with India being the largest exporter in the whole world. Despite changing diets, it still remains a crucial part of the diets for many. And it certainly pulls its weight by providing the necessary calorie intake for many impoverished, and helping fuel development in poorer countries.

Rice growth factors

All things considered, it is imperative that rice production be looked at with extreme care and scrutiny. It is the dominant crop of our country, and for good reason! Rice is a tropical plant and tends to grow extremely well in areas that receive heavy annual rainfall — both requirements being fulfilled splendidly by our country.

Female labourers planting rice near Vijaywada (Suman Reddy D/TOI,BCCL,VIJAYAWADA)

Labourers plant rice in flooded farm

(Suman Reddy D/TOI,BCCL,VIJAYAWADA)

However, as mentioned earlier, the importance of water in rice cultivation cannot be underestimated. Rice requires a substantial amount of water for its growth at most points in its life. Therefore, the crop can only be grown in areas that either have an equally high amount of rainfall (such as Assam) or a good network of dams and reservoirs to ensure perennial irrigation (such as Punjab). West Bengal produces the largest amount of rice annually due to these reasons.

It is no secret that rice production in our country is heavily dependent on the monsoon — which supplies about 70% of India’s annual rainfall — to produce the required water for the crop. On average, about 1500 litres of water is needed to produce one kilogram of rice.

The state of Monsoon 2022

The size of the crop and the quality and quantity of the yield all depend colossally on water availability during its growth period. Historically, we have seen rice prices hiked due to poor Indian monsoon rains, such as in 2009, 2016 and 2019. This year, too, the delayed onset of monsoon over many parts has resulted in a drier-than-normal June for India, which could potentially mean a later sowing season as well.

The southwest monsoon has only just begun to cover the state of Uttar Pradesh, almost 2 weeks behind schedule. Even West Bengal experienced a delayed onset this year. Together, these two states produce about one-fourth of the total rice in India. Therefore, sub-optimum weather conditions in these places could really hamper rice production in the entire country, which would inadvertently lead to increased prices of the crop.

Progress of the monsoon, June 30

(IMD)

Then there is also the problem that Indian farmers tend to look towards sowing alternate crops to supplement their income if fear of diminished rainfall takes hold over the country. This again reduces the output of rice in the country.

India is currently suffering from a 10% deficiency in overall rainfall as we start to ride into July. But on the bright side, met forecasts predict things to return to normal conditions soon.

Price hikes in the past

Due to harsh summers and scanty rain, Uttar Pradesh farmers in 2019 opted to shift to early-maturing varieties of rice due to delays in planting that season. Further, the rice transplantation was carried out in only about half the area covered the previous year in the state. A similar story was also seen in Punjab, which planted 11% less rice that year due to the delay in rainfall.

According to The Economic Times, a 22% rain deficit in 2016 led to 10% less rice being sown, which led to a year-over-year price hike of over 2%. Even last year, basmati rice saw an almost 40% increase in prices, which led to an increase in the prices of non-basmati variants as well. However, this was primarily attributed to erratic weather conditions in August and September, and exceptional global demand for rice.

A hopeful outlook

It will be interesting to see how things play out this year. Despite the initial shock from the delayed onsets over the country, some farmers remain hopeful.

Anil Kalyan, a farmer from Haryana told Business Standard: “There will be more demand for rice this year and prices will rise because of the shortage of wheat in the country,” adding that there are no issues with the availability of fertilisers at the moment.

Free distribution of rice at fair-price shops in Chennai (C Suresh Kumar/BCCL - CHENNAI)

Free distribution of rice at fair-price shops in Chennai

(C Suresh Kumar/BCCL – CHENNAI)

It might be interesting to note that India has sufficient stocks of rice at the moment, which provides some sort of protection against spurring a rapid price hike in the country.

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