Decoding the first week of the monsoon
Once the annual monsoon makes landfall, I follow a daily morning ritual. It goes something like this: I log on to the website of the India Meteorological Department, or IMD (very clumsily constructed, but fabulous if you can figure your way around), and go through the various metrics on the progress of the monsoon and, of course, the stunning satellite pictures capturing the black and white view of the sub-continent from above.
To most it will sound crazy; but to me, it is therapeutic (there is something very compelling about the monsoon, and following its daily progress gives me some kind of a high) and, lately, informative after reading alarmist reports claiming that the rains were below par this year, too—facts hosted by IMD on its website tell you otherwise.
Why is it important to get the facts on the monsoon right?
This year’s monsoon comes in the backdrop of two back-to-back droughts caused by the worst El Niño, the weather phenomenon which causes warming of the Pacific Ocean, impacting the formation of monsoon clouds.
Not just from the point of view of the overall economy, but also in alleviating growing rural distress and bringing relief to India’s agrarian economy, which employs nearly 50% of our workforce, a good monsoon is imperative.
And of course, it is also a fact that the spread of rural distress has squeezed demand, hurting consumer goods manufacturers.
In its first forecast, IMD hinted it would be a normal monsoon this year. By the time of its second forecast, IMD was more reassured, especially with the El Niño rapidly dissipating (and now, expectations are that it will morph into La Niña, the opposite phenomenon which can trigger excess rain).
It confidently reaffirmed its earlier forecast that the monsoon this year will be 106% of the long-period average, which is above normal, and that there was a 94% probability that it will be normal to excess. The only catch was that it would make a late landfall on 7 June, plus or minus four days—it normally arrives on 1 June.
The monsoon finally arrived on 9 June, perfectly within IMD’s forecast range and started moving rapidly across the southern tip of India. But after the first week, it didn’t progress beyond the upper reaches of Kerala, but swung around to the east coast.
This was enough to trigger fear mongering, especially by those who are comparing stats with the normal period of the onset of the monsoon from 1 June.
Given that the onset was late, we have so far only a week of data of the monsoon, which has stayed largely concentrated over Kerala.
As the above graphic shows, in the week ended 15 June, only three (all in northern Kerala) out of the 14 districts in the state received deficient rains; two actually received in “large excess” (60% above normal) and four in the range of 20-59% above normal rains.
And a perusal of the latest satellite pictures posted on the IMD site shows that the monsoon is now rapidly progressing into interior India. (Suggest you try and view this stunning animation that IMD has created using black and white satellite pix of India).
The bottom line then is that we can all rest easy. This year’s monsoon is on course, albeit a little slower in progress than normal. But what we still don’t know as yet (and should be the cause for worry) is the spatial distribution of rains. It never is uniform. But that is not the point. The concern is whether perennially rain-deficient parts of the country will see relief this year.
Clearly, there is a lot riding on this year’s monsoon—which makes my daily ritual that much more important.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus
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