New Delhi: The threat that India’s sharp economic recovery could be stalled by truant rains became a bit more real on Wednesday with the country’s meteorological department downgrading its estimate of summer monsoon rainfall by 3 percentage points—the bleakest monsoon forecast in at least a decade.
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The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said rainfall for the remaining monsoon months, July to September, is likely to be “below normal” at 93% of the Long Period Average, or LPA (a 50-year average that pegs India’s normal rainfall at 89cm). Crucially, rainfall in July—considered the most important monsoon month—is also expected to be below normal, at only 93% of its LPA (29cm). June, which usually gets 18% of the monsoon rainfall, was short by at least 53% as of Wednesday.
Big picture: Minister for science, technology and earth sciences Prithvi Raj Chavan (right) with secretary Shailesh Nayak showing a map of the summer monsoon’s progress at a press conference in New Delhi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
“So, to compensate for that, you needed very heavy, above normal rainfall in July. That doesn’t look like its happening and, typically, the monsoon has a break in July (two weeks of no rain). So, this is a bad sign,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, meteorologist at the Indian Space Research Organisation and former chief forecaster with IMD.
On 18 April, IMD had said that the country’s average annual monsoon would likely be “near normal” this year. Rainfall of 85.4-92.5cm (or 96-104% of the average rainfall India has received every year for the past 50 years) is classified as “near normal”.
The June-September monsoon accounts for nearly 80% of the annual rainfall and is vital for the economy, being the main source of water for agriculture, which accounts for around 17% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Other than the 60% of the country’s workforce that depends on agriculture, the rains are also important for traders dealing in food and cash crops.
The current year’s monsoon is considered to be crucial for the economy as buoyant rural consumption has been a key driver of growth amid an economic downturn. While the country has sufficient food stocks to tide over any crisis this year, the rise in food prices that will follow a poor monsoon and, consequently a poor harvest, could wreak havoc on the economy.
Though IMD officials and minister for science, technology and earth sciences Prithvi Raj Chavan emphasized that there is no need to panic, scientists caution that the next 20 days are absolutely crucial for the monsoon to revive and make up for the nearly 45% deficit in June.
“(In) the next 15 days, the monsoon should spread well. It’s already picked up and we think it will gain ground over the next fortnight. It’s extremely important,” said Ajit Tyagi, director general, IMD.
With IMD’s model having a built in error of +/-4%, there’s a small chance that India will end this monsoon season with rainfall that is 89% of LPA. Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
“We must be optimistic,” said Chavan. “Trends also show that 11 out of 16 times in the recent past, we’ve had bad June rains and normal overall monsoon rainfall. This is only a scientific estimate and these prediction models have their built-in errors. The state agricultural departments will take appropriate cognizance.”
Still, India’s summer, or kharif, crops will be affected in some parts of the country, said an expert.
S. Raghuraman, head of trade research, Agriwatch, a Delhi-based agri-commodity research firm, said while kharif crops were largely grown on irrigated and not rain-fed land, there has already been a fall in reservoir levels in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, and any deficiency in rainfall could lead to less water in reservoirs and a fall of up to 10% in kharif production. According to IMD, north-west India is expected to face nearly 19% deficit in its rainfall quota.
India’s main summer crops are paddy, pulses such as pigeon pea (tuar), black and green gram (urad and moong), coarse grains such as maize, bajra and jowar, and oilseeds.
Raghuraman also said that at 93%, the July rainfall level will be alright, but added that a fall below 90% would be cause for concern.
There’s also the possibility of a drought. Any deficit of rainfall in excess of 10% of LPA over at least 20% of the country is termed a drought, said Tyagi.
With IMD’s model having a built in error of +/-4%, there’s a small chance that India will end this monsoon season with rainfall that is 89% of LPA. Given the 19% deficit in North-West India, which consists of large swathes of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana, the result could be as close to a drought as it gets.
“There’s certainly a worry. But August and September should hopefully offset such a situation,” said Tyagi.
According to the government’s economic survey for 2002-03, low rainfall years in the past have always adversely affected kharif crop production. In 2002-03, when monsoon rainfall was 19% below normal, kharif production fell 19.1%. In 2004-05, another year when the monsoon was scanty, kharif foodgrain production was 102.9 million tonnes, nine million tonnes short of the previous year’s production.
However, food security isn’t a concern, said an expert.
“Today, overall stock in the central pool is 53 million tonnes, whereas the Food Corporation of India, or FCI (the central food agency of the government) has the capacity to just store 25 million tonnes. FCI does not know how and where to store,” said agricultural economist Ashok Gulati, director, International Food Policy Research Institute.
“The problem (of shortage) may be with oilseeds and cereals such as sorghum, especially in dry lands of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. To cope with this problem, the government should allow import of oilseeds at low import duties so that there is no scarcity,” he added.
Gulati also said since every fourth year is a drought year, farmers learn to live with it.
Rahul Chandran contributed to this story.