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New Delhi: Drought fears loom large over India’s rain-dependent farm sector awaiting the onset of southwest monsoon as the country’s official weather forecaster Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) on Tuesday downgraded its monsoon outlook for the June-September season to 88% of the 50-year average.

It has also doubled the chances of deficient rainfall from its April forecast.

The four-month monsoon season is crucial for India as over 60% of its cultivable land is rain-fed and more than 70% of the annual rainfall takes place in this period.

The IMD also said that northwest India is likely to suffer most with 85% of long period average (LPA). Seasonal rainfall in central India is expected to be 90%, 92% in south peninsula and 90% in northeast India with an error margin of 8 percentage points either way.

The monsoon is considered below normal when the rainfall range is 90-96% of LPA and is considered deficient if it falls below 90%.

The IMD had in April predicted rainfall at 93% of long period average (LPA).

The revision in forecast comes in the wake of likely onset of El Nino, a weather phenomenon that leads to warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean triggering atmospheric changes that affect rainfall in India.

In its current update, the IMD says that there is about 90% chance of El Nino conditions to continue during the four-month season. El Nino conditions are likely to strengthen further and reach to moderate strength during the monsoon season.

“The main reason for this deficient rainfall is El Nino which is expected to strengthen further. Another reason is that the westerly is moving more southward than normal, not letting the monsoon enter the Kerala coast which is leading to further delay and weakening of monsoon," said D.S. Pai, chief of long-range forecasting division at the IMD. He said that in 2002 and 2009, both El Nino years, the northwest region of India suffered the most.

Meanwhile, private forecasting agency Skymet Weather Services Pvt. Ltd is still sticking to its original forecast of a normal monsoon at 102% of LPA.

A failed monsoon this year would mean a third consecutive crop failure for India’s farmers. Due to adverse weather conditions during the 2014-15 crop season, foodgrain production is estimated to drop 5.3% and growth in agriculture is expected to nearly vanish—0.2% in 2014-15 compared with 3.7% in the previous year.

Astute food management is needed to mitigate possible inflationary effects, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said in its monetary policy statement on Tuesday. Contingency plans like storage of adequate quantity of seeds and fertilizers for timely supply, crop insurance schemes and credit facilities needs to be in place to manage inflationary impact of lower production, it said.

On Tuesday, Union earth science minister Harsh Vardhan said since the southwest and northeast monsoons failed in 2014, the IMD’s prediction of an overall 93% probability of a weak monsoon in 2015 is a cause of worry.

“The onset has been delayed by a week already and there is no certainty on when the ideal parameters will be in place for the monsoon to arrive," he said.

Monsoon is now expected to make a landfall in Kerala on 5 June.

Although nearly quarter of the country’s area faced drought-like conditions last year, 2014 was not considered a drought year. The last time IMD declared a drought year was 2009 when nearly 60% of the districts in India received deficient rainfall.

“If IMD’s forecast comes true it will mean drought in many parts of the country and another bad year for agriculture," said Ramesh Chand, director of National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research and a member of the National Task Force on Agriculture under the NITI Aayog. While contingency plans (for crops) to handle deficit monsoons are in place, the government should see to it’s effective implementation, Chand said, adding that this means ensuring seed availability of
late sowing varieties and of crops like coarse cereals and maize that farmers will be looking for.

Last year’s kharif (summer) crop season was effected by drought in major states, including Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, as the southwest monsoon recorded a deficit of 12% of LPA. This was followed by a spate of unseasonal showers in March and April this year that damaged crops just ahead of the rabi (winter) harvest.

“This government, sadly, is yet to realize there is an agrarian crisis at hand and that as farm incomes take a hit, so will the demand for non-farm products," said T. Haque, director of Council for Social Development, Delhi, and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. “In such a situation, a 7.5% growth rate will be hard to realize. The government is not only slow in reacting to the crisis, it has not even addressed long-term issue like public investments in irrigation or initiating a comprehensive crop insurance scheme," he said.

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