No matter which political party stakes claim to form a new national government on 23 May, it seems like the weather might pose an immediate test of its administrative competence.
While there have been enough indications of an impending weak monsoon, private forecaster Skymet put its neck out on Wednesday and predicted a “below normal" monsoon. The projected deficit in the months of June and July are particularly steep. Early June is when large swathes of the country begin cropping for the kharif season. Any serious shortfall in rainfall in the early phase of the monsoon would have a ripple effect on the rest of India’s economy. In many ways, a scenario similar to 2014, when the Narendra Modi government raised alarm bells over a drought that hit 330 million Indians, may play out after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections as well.
The irony is that India’s annual economic performance is still heavily tied to the monsoon. In 2010, Pranab Mukherjee remarked that the monsoon was India’s real finance minister. In an era where climate change-related effects are expected to kick in, pushing the monsoon into erratic territory, how long this state of affairs can be allowed to continue is a big question.
The Economic Survey of 2017-18 pointed out that below-average rainfall in unirrigated parts of the country could wipe out as much as 25% of the annual income of a farming household. As significant parts of the country’s rural economy would be reliant on agriculture for at least the next few decades, India should step up its efforts on two fronts. The country needs accurate weather forecasting capability and must put in place a well-funded water stress mitigation programme.
India’s monsoon prediction remains a hit-and-miss affair. Senior government officials openly admit that the India Meteorological Department’s main forecast, which comes out in early May, is wildly off the mark three out of 10 times.
An advance drought prediction system based on soil moisture content was initiated late last year. According to the latest available data from this programme, which operates from the Water and Climate Lab at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar, nearly half the country is facing a drought, with at least 16% of the country placed in the “extreme" category.
Once other efforts of the kind improve the accuracy of forecasts, a national programme on mitigation and improving resilience would be the next logical step.
A 2018 paper published in the Journal Of Hydrology by IIT Indore researchers found that only about 32% of India’s landmass is resilient to water stress during the course of a single dry season. Unless existing mechanisms for the devolution of funds to states, such as through the Finance Commission, factor in climate change-related threats and target districts whose needs might be greater, the risks faced by large parts of India will worsen.
Ultimately, India’s economic output will achieve stability only if it is able to escape the vagaries of the monsoon. That cannot happen without improvements in prediction and mitigation. In any case, the Indian monsoon has a well-documented 30-year cycle of wet and dry periods. The next dry spell, expected to last till 2049, begins in 2020. Even the ongoing wet 30-year period has had an exceedingly high number of drought years, possibly on account of climate change.
An important task of the incoming government would be to adequately protect the Indian economy from recurrent weather-related shocks. It’s about time.