The meteorological department has projected this year’s monsoon at 95% rainfall, which is 5% lower than the country’s long-term average. The department had seen moderate El Nino conditions in 2006, which eased into a La Nina in February 2007. Which is good news for the country’s farm sector. As we saw earlier, the forecast was 92% last year, whereas the actual performance was 99%.
The monsoon covered the entire country on 24 July, with a delay of nine days. Overall monsoon was 99% of the Long Period Average (LPA) against the forecast of 92% of LPA. However, its distribution was erratic in time and space. Month-wise distribution of rainfall and departure from LPA was as follows: June—3% below normal, July—5% above normal, August—2% below normal and September—1% below normal.
Although June was short, overall conditions were all right, when you look at aggregate figures. However, that is not the whole story.
The monsoon carries water from the sea to the land, up to the Himalayas. What the aggregate figures hide is the fact that last year, the wind system did not carry water far enough (as it normally does), though it carried normal quantities. Consequently, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh had excess rain (in some regions to the extent of 50% above normal), whereas the northern states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Assam had deficient rains (in some areas 30-40% below normal). Thus, we had drought-like conditions in quite a few regions of the country in spite of a very good overall monsoon.
The context is self-evident: Water is a key resource for agriculture, and water supply is a function of rainfall. In the Indian subcontinent, it is only the northern and eastern regions that get supplies from both the rains and the glacial rivers. The western, the central, and the southern parts are irrigated by rivers whose flows depend heavily on the intensity of rain. A few bad seasons deplete these rivers and the ground water considerably.
There are two monsoon systems that drive rains in the subcontinent—the southwest monsoon extending over a period from June to September and the northeast monsoon from October to December. Agriculturally the southwest monsoon holds the key as it accounts for 80% of the country’s annual rainfall. Besides, two-thirds of the Indian kharif crop (monsoon sown) is directly dependent on rain, since the irrigation networks do not reach all areas.
The extent of rains, their timeliness, temporal and spatial distribution have profound impact on agricultural production and, consequently, on the agricultural economy of the country. In this context, the performance of the southwest monsoon gains importance and the entire country keenly awaits pre-monsoon forecasts and closely follows the progress of the monsoon.
The department of agriculture and cooperation in association with the department of space have jointly conceptualized Forecasting Agricultural Output Using Space, Agri-Meteorology and Land-based Observation (FASAL), in order to strengthen the early season crop estimation capabilities and validate the estimates of area under selected crops. The first long-range forecast of India Meteorological Department (IMD) is normally released during April, covering the southwest monsoon for the ensuing rainy season. The forecast is made as a percentage of the Long Period Average, with tolerance/error up to 5%.
The IMD forecasts for the monsoon in the last 10 years reveal that the actual rainfall has been 5-20% off from the forecasts, which is a fairly large variation. The 1999 forecasts, for instance, were 111% of the LPA, whereas the actual rainfall was only 96% of the LPA and, during the drought year of 2002, the actual rainfall was 20% below the forecast figure.
Coming back to this year’s numbers, this forecast should be a great relief for the government, which has been on tenterhooks over the issue of price rise in the recent past. Three-fifths of the country’s population is directly dependent on agriculture and two-thirds of the rural population of the country has its prosperity directly riding on the monsoon.
On the agricultural front, key cereals such as rice, maize, jowar and bajra (sorghum and pearl millet), oilseeds such as groundnut, soybean and cottonseed, pulses such as tur (pigeon pea) and urad (black matpe) are grown during the kharif season fed by the southwest monsoon. And kharif constitutes the major share of the country’s total farm output.
The key kharif crops are rice (more than 75 million tonnes), coarse cereals (more than 25 million tonnes), pulses (about five million tonnes), oilseeds (about 13 million tonnes), cotton (about 20 million bales), sugarcane (about 300 million tonnes), and jute (about 10 million bales).
These are key crops and the performance of the monsoon will directly impact availability and prices. The prices, in turn, will have a direct bearing on the government policy on essential commodities. Prices are not the only issue. The government is targeting 4% agricultural growth in the 11th Plan period, and the performance of the southwest monsoon holds one of the major keys to achieving this growth.
Amit Sinha is director and head of consulting and research at Agriwatch.com