New Delhi: No one is saying the words “bad monsoon” yet, but the slow advance of India’s crucial rainy season is being followed anxiously after a dry 2009 wiped out crops and fuelled food price rises.
The annual rains, which sweep across the subcontinent from June to September, were 16% below normal in June.
After arriving ahead of schedule they have stalled over central India, below the parched, northern plains which are still counting the cost of last year’s failed monsoon -- the worst in nearly four decades.
Right now, the “monsoon is not behaving as expected”, weather office director general Ajit Tyagi said, although he predicted that the final rainfall figures for the season would be “normal”.
Not content with the promises of meteorologists, some people in the northern holy city of Varanasi have been conducting “frog weddings” -- marrying frogs with full Hindu rituals in a tradition believed to please the rain gods.
The slow onset of the rains has postponed soybean planting in the world’s top edible oils importer and could delay rice planting in the northern grainbowl states of Haryana and Punjab.
India, which gets 80% of its annual rainfall from the monsoon, is one of the world’s leading producers of rice, wheat and sugar.
The uncertain start to the rainy season means more worries about food inflation, which is already running at nearly 13% and has a major impact on India’s impoverished millions, the Congress-led government’s core support.
The government needs a decent monsoon to help rein in the price rises that have triggered opposition-led demonstrations around the country.
The meteorological department’s chief monsoon forecaster, D. Sivananda Pai, has put the stuttering start to the season down to “glitches” and his department says overall rainfall may be slightly above average.
But the same department was wrong last year when it forecast a normal monsoon.
July is the most critical month from a planting perspective -- the time when India usually receives the maximum amount of rain.
Agriculture secretary P.K. Basu said if rainfall was delayed beyond 5 July 5 over northern India it would give cause for worry.
With only 40% of arable land under irrigation, India’s 235 million farmers rely on the capricious rains to soak the rock-hard earth and turn it into fertile soil.
A bad monsoon can spell financial disaster, wiping out livelihoods for many small landholders eking out a living.
The farm sector’s contribution to India’s gross domestic product has fallen from 50% in the 1950s to 17%, but remains vital to the national economy by supporting 700 million rural Indians and fuelling consumer demand for everything from TVs and refrigerators to motorcycles and gold.
“A good monsoon this year is critical from all sorts of standpoints -- from consumer demand, to inflation, hydroelectric power and water availability,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, economist at Indian credit rating agency Crisil.
“You can withstand one monsoon failure, but two monsoon failures would make things very difficult,” Joshi said.
There is no danger of a famine as the country still has healthy wheat and rice stockpiles from four years of bumper harvests.
But analysts say the challenge for the government is to maintain a steady supply of foodgrains in the market to ensure stable prices and prevent hoarding and black marketeering.
And more is riding on this monsoon than just the summer crop.