New Delhi: The India Meteorological Department (IMD) said on Tuesday that monsoon rainfall over the country would be “below normal”, less than what it was projected to be in April.
The worrying aspect of the forecast, keenly watched this year given the recent firming of inflation, is that July—the key month for planting rice—may see a significant shortfall in rainfall. However, IMD officials emphasized that there was no cause for alarm as rainfall was expected to be evenly distributed across the country.
Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, said it was too early for an assessment and a clearer picture would emerge in another 15 days. Noting that sowing in south India was progressing well, he cautioned that the weak rainfall forecast during July may cause a little stress. “It would be a challenge to achieve the 102 million tonnes target of rice production this year. If rainfall becomes less than normal, then farmers may shift to cereals and pulses, which require less water compared with sowing of paddy,” Gulati added.
The June-September monsoon generates nearly 80% of the annual rainfall over the country and is vital for the economy, being the main source of water for agriculture, which generates about 17% of India’s gross domestic product. 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 as any shortfall causes price volatility.
In an update to its forecast in April, when IMD said rainfall would be 98% of the long-period average (LPA) of 89cm, the department said rainfall would only be 95% of LPA. These predictions are based on mathematical models that could swing 5% either way and the department’s press note said there was a one-in-five chance of total rainfall dipping below 90%—considered a drought.
India gets an average of 89cm of rain, called LPA, or a 50-year average. Rainfall at 85.4-92.5cm (or 96-104% of LPA) is classified as “normal”, as IMD had previously termed the rainfall in April.
July and August, which together contribute nearly 70% of India’s rainfall, are expected to receive only 93% and 94% of their quotas, respectively, which according to meteorologists implies at least two long break periods (when rainfall substantially dips for over a week). “There will be significant break periods and unfortunately we can’t predict them more than a week in advance,” said Ajit Tyagi, director general of IMD.
North-west India is likely to get 97% of its quota, the North-East—the only region in the country with deficient rainfall as of today—is expected to buck up and improve to 95%, central India and the south peninsula are likely to receive 95% and 94% of their quotas, respectively. “Were it to be below 90%, there would be cause for concern,” said Shailesh Nayak, secretary, ministry of earth sciences.
To be sure, these percentage figures are spun out of mathematical models that may swing 8% either way. These models are different from those used to forecast the total rainfall between June and September.
“Global parameters suggest that sea surface temperatures in the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean are neutral. So there’s no real indication either way. However, given historical trends, there could be a slight shortfall,” said Pawan Kumar Bansal, Union minister for science, technology and earth sciences. “There’s no real cause for worry,” he added when asked about the effects of the shortfall on the kharif (or summer) crop. The kharif crop is the key contributor to India’s rice and maize. Gulati said there was no immediate cause for worry as there were sufficient food stocks.
Independent experts suggest it was difficult to be reassured about the monsoon. “International models are showing a wide range of predictions from normal to drought... Usually, excess rainfall in June has always meant normal or slightly below-normal overall monsoon rainfall. But things could change dramatically,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, a former forecaster with IMD and now a scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation.