Equipment, labour shortages threaten Indian harvest

One analyst disagrees, saying harvest complications will have ‘absolutely no impact on pulse quality and yields’

COVID-19 is throwing a wrench into India’s rabi crop harvest, but that won’t impact pulse yields or quality, says an expert.

There have been a number of reports that COVID-19 restrictions are limiting access to custom combining services in northern India, causing a delay in the 2020 harvest.

Most of India’s custom hiring centres and operators are located in Punjab. Their services are required at this time of year by farmers in neighbouring states in northern India.

But because of COVID-19-related travel restrictions, the machines and operators have been unable to cross state lines.

“To deliver the machines in Rajasthan, we need to cross three borders — Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan,” Nirmal Singh, spokesperson for Kartar Agro Industry Private Ltd., a custom combining business based in Nabha, Punjab, told The Wire, an online Indian newspaper.

“It’s really difficult to attain permission from three states and numerous districts for delivering combine harvester machines. All our operations have stopped.”

The Indian government has taken steps to allow harvesters and operators to cross state borders but is requiring operators to be tested for COVID-19.

That has created “panic” among operators who think they may get infected during the test, according to The Wire.

Reuters is reporting that a “severe shortage of labour” is also disrupting India’s harvest.

It says the inability to get mechanical harvesters or the labour required to harvest crops by hand is delaying harvest.

“Late harvests mean lower yields, reduced returns and a smaller window to plant next season’s crops,” the Reuters story said.

“Even if farmers manage to bring in the harvest, they could struggle to get produce to market because of a lack of drivers for trucks that can carry large volumes.”

G. Chandrashekar, senior editor for the Hindu Business Line, said there are indeed some harvest complications, but they will have “absolutely no impact on pulse quality and yields.”

“It is not as serious a problem as it is made out to be,” he said in an email.

The Indian government has lifted restrictions on the harvesting and marketing of crops, although port and trucking operations have stalled because of the lack of labour.

“COVID-19 has surely delayed harvest operations but I am hoping things will gradually return to normal,” he said.

Farmers in northern India rely on harvesting equipment while those in the central and southern regions of the country tend to use manual labour, which is in short supply and expensive these days.

India’s ministry of agriculture is forecasting a record 15.1 million tonnes of rabi pulse production.

Chandrashekar thinks that is optimistic. He believes it will be 14 to 14.5 million tonnes, which would still be the second biggest crop on record.

“I have taken into account some crop damage due to unseasonal rains and hailstorms in March,” he said.

His forecast includes 10 to 10.5 million tonnes of chickpeas, 1.4 million tonnes of lentils and 700,000 tonnes of peas.

India has agreed to allow the import of up to 1.1 million tonnes of pulses, including 400,000 tonnes of black matpe, 400,000 tonnes of pigeon peas, 150,000 tonnes of moong and 150,000 tonnes of peas.

That is a far cry from 2016-17 when the country imported 6.34 million tonnes of pulses.

In a recent article published on the Global Pulse Confederation (GPC) website, Chandrashekar said the Indian government has announced every vulnerable household will be entitled to five kilograms of rice or wheat and one kilogram of pulses free of cost for the next three months.

That program is expected to generate 480,000 tonnes of pulse consumption. The Indian government has buffer stocks of 2.2 million tonnes of pulses.

Chandrashekar has been encouraging the government to continue providing subsidized pulses to its citizens after the COVID-19 crisis is over as part of the national welfare program.

“If accepted, this proposal would be a major shot in the arm for the pulse sector, and it would also benefit both pulse growers and consumers,” he told GPC.

“I have always believed that India is perhaps the only country where both pulse consumption and production can take a quantum leap.”

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