New Delhi: The India Meteorological Department (IMD) on Monday reduced its rainfall estimates for the year, the worst since 2002, bringing it below the drought threshold. Meanwhile, the government stepped up mitigation efforts and called for a meeting of chief ministers to be chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on 21 August.
Any reduction in rainfall would impact the area under the summer kharif crop, the production of foodgrain in particular, and put further upward pressure on food price inflation which is already in double digits.
IMD chief Ajit Tyagi said India would get only 87% (77.43 cm) of its 50-year normal, or long period average (LPA). It had estimated rainfall to be 93% and 96% of LPA in June and April, respectively. A year that posts a 10% overall rainfall deficit over one-fifth of the country’s area officially constitutes a drought year. The actual rainfall, given the margin of error in the IMD forecast model, would be 83% on the lower side and 87% on the upper side.
When asked if he was signalling a drought, Tyagi said, “It’s a worrying situation but it’s the agriculture ministry that declares a drought. We are only forecasting the future, based on conditions today.”
This is the first time India’s official weather forecaster has tweaked its estimates for a third time in a year. Typically, IMD doesn’t change its monsoon estimates after June. But a lull since late July, rain in the first week of August being only 36% of the normal, an El Nino in the Pacific Ocean, among other meteorological conditions, seem to have convinced IMD that August and September rainfall will likely be deficient. El Nino is a weather condition affecting the monsoon.
“We have conveyed this to the Prime Minister’s Office. There’s been a prolonged weak spell in August. There might be a revival after 15 August, and after the first week of September, you can’t expect much. Several meteorological conditions, including the now prevalent El Nino, are playing their role. But we are still hopeful,” said Tyagi over the phone.
The weather office’s bleak projections are significant on the back of increasing official concern. The government is readying contingency plans to tackle a shortfall in food production. Deficient rains may shave as much as 1 percentage point off India’s economic growth this year, said economist Raghuram Rajan, an adviser to Singh. The meeting of state chief ministers and agriculture ministers convened by the Prime Minister on 21 August will discuss details about the drought situation.
According to a top official in the agriculture ministry, the government is “concerned” about the drought’s impact on the economy as deficient rains will have a cascading effect. “The states facing drought will be seeking more Central assistance. This will also lead to farmers seeking more subsidies for diesel, more money for importing foodgrain, pulses and sugar from the international market,” the official said, adding that the situation will have its adverse effects on government spending in the social sector. The official was implying that given the fiscal constraints, the Union government will be unable to earmark fresh funds, and may instead be forced to cut back on other social sector spending.
He also pointed out that more states are demanding interest subsidies by the Centre on farm loans extended by commercial banks and regional rural banks (RRBs).
Showers in July, the wettest month in the June-to-September season, were more than forecast. That wasn’t enough to wipe out the 46% deficit in June, which received the lowest rain in 83 years. Rain in the week ended 5 August was 64% below the average 65.9 mm.
Rice has been the worst hit, with the crop area falling by 5.8 million hectares as of 6 August, the farm ministry said on Monday. Bihar declared 26 of 38 districts as drought-hit on Monday; Uttar Pradesh, India’s No. 2 sugar producer, has declared drought in 47 districts and Maharashtra, the biggest, has cut its output forecast to 4.6 million tonnes from 5 million tonnes. The agriculture ministry has estimated India’s sugar output for the year beginning 1 October to be 16-17 million tonnes, lower than the earlier forecast of about 20 million tonnes.
The country’s drought-struck sugar cane and rice growing regions in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh may receive widespread rains starting in the next 48 hours, the weather bureau said on its website on Monday.
Food shortage can push up the Consumer Price Index faster this time, said Dharmakirti Joshi, an economist at Crisil Ltd. The index is very high in comparison with previous drought situations in 2002-03. Consumer prices paid by farm workers jumped 11.52% in June from a year earlier after gaining 10.21% in May.
Bloomberg contributed to this story.