Monsoon seen normal this year

Monsoon seen normal this year

New Delhi: A second straight poor summer monsoon is unlikely, India’s weather office chief said ahead of an official forecast for the rains that are crucial to the economy of the world’s second most populous nation.

In 2009, the worst monsoon rains in 37 years caused widespread losses in key crops like oilseeds and sugarcane, which fed through to food price inflation that reached double digits in the past year.

The latest data showed the food price index was up 17.70% in the year to 17 March, strengthening expectations of a hike in interest rates when the central bank reviews policy next month.

But weather observations made against a historical set of parameters modelled on a supercomputer to predict the monsoon signal good rainfall this year, and the chief of the India Meteorological Department, Ajit Tyagi, said the chances of a monsoon failure two years in a row are remote.

“It happens rarely," Tyagi told Reuters.

Data from the weather office shows that out of about 20 droughts since 1901, 17 were followed by near-normal rainfall. The weather office will issue its formal monsoon forecast in the second half of April.

Summer monsoon rains traverse the subcontinent from its southern tip to the Himalayan north from June through September.

The rains are vital for rural India, home to two-thirds of its billion-plus people who are a key support base for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government voted back to power last year as its policies boosted farm incomes.

India, the second largest producer and top consumer of sugar, had to import a record five million tonnes of the sweetner last year as cane fields were hit by the drought, making it a key driver of New York raw sugar futures which peaked at 30.40 cents a pound on 1 February.

Rainfall is vital for higher cane production to boost sugar output during processing.

Higher sugar supply could also encourage the government to reverse a series of measures, including duty-free imports of sugar, that were taken last year when output fell sharply.

Oilseeds and Wheat

Lower oilseed output also last year led India to overtake China as the world’s biggest edible oils buyer, and good monsoon rains would reduce Indian imports, an industry official said.

B V Mehta, head of the Solvent Extracters’ Association, said adequate rainfall was important for the edible oils industry.

“Good rainfall is very important, but it should also be well distributed across oilseeds producing regions," he said.

Hopes for a normal monsoon this year has also brightened prospects for wheat exports from India, which banned shipments three years ago amid fears of scarcity.

India faces a storage problem as the 2010 harvest is expected to be a record, exceeding demand for the fourth straight year.

The government has already allowed limited exports of wheat to neighbouring countries, and last week, Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar said the country had received trade queries for overseas sale of wheat on bulging stocks.

“The government can make bold decision on wheat exports. It can tinker policies if the monsoon shapes up on expected line," said S Raghuraman, a Delhi-based independent analyst.

Normal rainfall would also help Indian government that has faced protests against rising prices.

Weather officials are particularly encouraged by the weakening of the El Nino phenomenon, which can create havoc in weather across the Asia-Pacific region, unleashing droughts and heavy storms.

“There are indications of a weak and neutral El Nino. Towards the end year, there could be La Nina (the opposite, cooling phenomenon)," Tyagi said.

Last month, the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said the El Nino had peaked, but was expected to influence climate patterns up to mid-year before dying out.

Agricultural secretary, P K Basu, said it was too early to predict the monsoon, but weather conditions such as the El Nino augured well for the rainy season.

High temperatures before monsoon rains, which usually start on 1 June, also augur well for the rainy season, scientists say.

The weather office said this year’s March temperature rose to a record in several regions, while April has seen severe heat wave conditions over many parts of the country.