By V Shunmugam
A third of the global cotton growing area in India, hybridisation and increasing adoption of BT hybrid cotton varieties have turned India into a major exporter of cotton in the last decade. India was crowned the largest cotton producer in the world in the crop year (CY) 2015-16. In CY 2018-19, the cotton crop fared poorly due to a 20% rainfall deficit, with an estimated 14% reduction in production. Last years' production was also lower by 11% over decadal average cotton production of 352 lakh bales.
As the farmers contributed to 'Cotton Revolution' of the last decade, mill consumption also expanded by over 30%. Increasing quality awareness and widespread use of hybrid seeds, led to India's cotton exports witnessing a growth until CY 2017-18, despite lower stocks. Lower crop estimates for 2018-19 pushed Indian cotton millers off the cliff to seek out their raw material requirements through imports. Though the production estimates of the significant trade body are being contested by the stakeholders, the proof of production numbers is already in the increasing trend of cotton imports estimated at 31 million bales-highest in the last decade on the back of lower exports. Added to the lower production, is also a low stock of 13 lakh bales, which is a third of the decadal closing stock of 38 lakh bales.
Production numbers reveal that after reaching the peak of 398 lakh bales during CY 13-14, production has been south-bound. Domestic consumption and augmented export demand had kept the mill consumption clock ticking annually in the last decade. Increasing exports and mill consumption led to stocks moving to a low of 5% of the consumption in CY18-19. Given that Indian productivity estimated as 502 Kg/hectare is lower than 1,751 and 944 of China and USA, respectively, one need's to see as to what ails India's production.
Productivity levels seem to have hit a plateau and pulling the country and farmers out of the same would require multi-pronged efforts. First, and foremost issue, is ensuring the availability of adequate good quality seed with traits such as drought tolerance, pest resistance, etc. A major reason for the significant reduction in crop output witnessed during 2018-19 remain the drought conditions in major growing areas and attack of the pink bollworm. Second, the adoption of better agronomic practices such as high-density planting of short duration varieties. This has the potential to increase yields to about 29% via lower exposure to pest attack, efficient use of water and other inputs while also suppressing weeds. Also, management practices such as in-situ soil and water conservation with bunds, integrated pest management, soil fertility testing and management, drip irrigation, etc., can have a significant impact.
Growing cotton varieties of high staple length is an important step towards augmenting the production and making available desired length of cotton fibre in the country. Adoption of better harvesting and post-harvest management practices will eliminate contamination, ensuring production and recovery of good quality of cotton that meets the requirements of domestic consumption as well as exports. Use of commodity derivatives platforms either directly or through aggregators will help the farmers lock in their prices and create quality awareness. This will encourage the farmer to adopt better agronomic practices.
Both the private and public sector agencies should work towards enhancing the availability of adequate quantities of desired quality seeds for the farmers at a subsidised rate. With the sowing of the new crop due in the next few weeks, the performance of monsoon will be a key factor for the output. Amid concerns of end-stocks to fall to an alarmingly low level, there is an urgent need for remedial measures to be taken, to reclaim the coveted position of being the top producing nation.
(The author is Head-Research at MCX. Views are personal.)