It was a foregone conclusion that India would be harvesting poor
summer food crops by November as the monsoon played truant
in the first place and then floods in many parts of the country
caused damage to standing plants.  The combination of a fall in
area under several crops and yield shrinkage ensured a nearly
7.5% fall in summer harvest.  Ashok Sethia, president of Solvent
Extractors Association of India, says that a countrywide survey
reveals that production of seven of the nine major oilseeds is
down to 13.7mt (million tonnes) from last season’s summer
production of 15mt.
In its wake, the edible oils availability from the summer
harvest will be down 400,000 tonnes keeping India further
heavily dependent on imports.  Sethia says “inadequate and
irregular regular rains caused a fall in oilseeds productivity to
780kg a hectare this time from 815kg last year.”  Both in terms of
area loss and productivity setback, groundnut figures at the top
of oilseeds chart.  As the area under groundnut crop shrank from
last year’s 5.333m hectares to 4.447m hectares and its yield fell
to 740kg a hectare from 791kg a hectare last time, production
was down by 930,000 tonnes to 3.29mt.  Soyabean, which is
increasingly becoming a popular source of oil here, suffered a
productivity setback of 40kg to 884kg a hectare.  In the case of
sunflower, productivity fall was as much as 60kg to 529kg a
“Forget that an exceptionally bad monsoon was the cause of a
major fall in productivity.  Thanks to the fact that less than 25% of
the land where oilseeds are farmed has irrigation coverage and
oilseeds in the country are grown mostly in marginal and sub-
marginal land, our productivity in a normal year is about half the
world average and one-third of leading producing countries,” says
Sethia.  It no doubt militates against the national goal of food
security that India is now dependent on imports for as much as
half of its oils requirements.
Some good pre-winter rains leaving enough moisture in the
soil for the mustard crop sowing — the biggest of all oilseeds
grown during the winter — have raised hopes of a good harvest
in March 2010.  Trade officials say had the government increased
the minimum support price for mustard, the farmers would have
brought some extra more land under the crop.  Even then Sethia
hopes that the winter oilseeds crop, including mustard will
compensate the summer crop deficit to some extent.  The fact
that the northern Indian states, including Rajasthan, accounting
for over 65% of mustard crop have fairly good irrigation coverage
should help. Moreover, early weather forecasts suggest some
good spells of winter rains.
In the season ended October 2009, India imported 8.66mt of
oils to supplement domestic output of 6.6mt. Whatever be the
size of winter oilseeds production, India will need to import
more in the current season than it did last time. The government
flush with foreign exchange cannot afford to curb oils imports by
using fiscal instrument since there already is a massive swelling of
public discontent over the unacceptably high food inflation.
Globally acclaimed oil expert Dorab Mistry says that as it is
happening in China since 1993, in the wake of “very strong
economic growth,” oils consumption will continue to rise fast in
India where GDP growth rate is next only to China.  India’s oils
consumption growing by nearly 1mt to 14.93mt in 2008/09
proves Mistry’s thesis.  High prices will, however, somewhat curb
demand growth this year when oils use is forecast at 15.5mt.
But not only does Indian per capitaoils consumption of less
than 11.5kg compare poorly with the world average of 17.8kg
and 45kg to 48kg in developed countries, the country’s oils use is
heavily skewed in favour of urban centres and well-to-do people.
According to a food ministry official, for the “health of the people
it is essential that we bring our per capitause to the world
average and at the same time ensure more equitable oils
consumption by people in various income groups.”
The basic challenge is to double oilseeds productivity within a
given period and also get new land under oilseeds by making
their cultivation a rewarding enterprise.  DCI has learned that the
government is considering the SEAI suggestion to create an
oilseeds and oil development fund by imposing a development
cess on imported edible oils.  At the same time, the government
expects oils extractors and refiners to make a cause of oilseeds
extension programme.
By Kunal Bose in Calcutta