A short­fall in key agri-pro­duc­ing ar­eas cloud an oth­er­wise rosy mon­soon pic­ture


Till late Au­gust, 233 of In­dia’s 630 dis­tricts — a lit­tle over a third —re­ported de­fi­cient rains. Over­all, the south­west mon­soon, which still ex­er­cises a ma­jor in­flu­ence over the for­tunes of the In­dian econ­omy, was around 5 per cent less than nor­mal, in spite of floods in As­sam. Is the coun­try headed for a de­fi­cient mon­soon?

As we head into Septem­ber, the last month of the four-month rainy sea­son, this is the ques­tion that ev­ery­one is ask­ing — from eco­nomic plan­ners to ex­ec­u­tives of con­sumer goods com­pa­nies.

Pri­vate weather fore­cast­ing ser­vices think the cu­mu­la­tive deficit will con­tinue to be five to seven per cent, which means the 2017 south-west mon­soon could end marginally below nor­mal. Closer to 95 per cent of the Long Pe­riod Av­er­age (LPA, the av­er­age rain­fall in the coun­try since 1951, about 889 cen­time­tres) is what the pri­vate agen­cies pre­dict. This is less op­ti­mistic than the lat­est up­date from the In­dian Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Depart­ment (IMD) fore­cast of 98 per cent of LPA (with a mar­gin of er­ror of +/- 4 per cent).

Though wor­ry­ing, there is lit­tle cause for alarm — yet. As me­te­o­rol­o­gists point out, even in the best mon­soon years, any­thing be­tween 20 and 25 per cent of the coun­try may not get ad­e­quate rains (the fore­cast is a mother of all av­er­ages, af­ter all). In fact, IMD data showed that dur­ing the com­pa­ra­ble pe­riod of 2016 (that is from June 1 to Au­gust 23), 37 per cent of the coun­try’s 660 dis­tricts re­ceived below-nor­mal rain­fall. All the same, 2016 was qual­i­fied as a nor­mal mon­soon year for the coun­try as a whole.

So, a five to seven per cent deficit may not sound like a big deal, es­pe­cially when the macro-data sug­gest that the mon­soon was nor­mal in 79 per cent of the 36 me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal sub­di­vi­sions but de­fi­cient (that is, re­ceiv­ing less than half their an­nual rain­fall) in 21 per cent of them.

It is, how­ever, these sub­di­vi­sions — which cover the coun­try’s main agripro­duc­ing re­gions — that the real story of this year’s mon­soon lies (see ta­ble).

One barom­e­ter of how the south-west mon­soon has pro­gressed is the sow­ing of kharif crops — which ac­counts for nearly 50 per cent per cent of In­dia’s agri­cul­tural out­put. Cu­mu­la­tively, sow­ing in these crops has been marginally lower than last year — for rice and wheat, for ex­am­ple, it’s one per cent less than last year.

The dis­ag­gre­gated fig­ures, how­ever, show big drops in in­di­vid­ual crops: soy­bean, ground­nut, sun­flower, arhar. Till Au­gust 25, arhar acreage was 18.66 per cent less than last year; soy­bean acreage had fallen 7.27 per cent; ground­nut acreage 11.33 per cent; and sun­flower acreage was 18.68 per cent down .

Al­though part of this drop has been at­trib­uted to a shift to­wards other re­mu­ner­a­tive crops, de­fi­cient rain­fall has also played a role. “In crops like soy­abean, arhar, ground­nut, where the acreage is less than last year, farm­ers have shifted to sug­ar­cane and cot­ton in a big way,” IMD Di­rec­tor Gen­eral K J Ramesh told Busi­ness Stan­dard re­cently.

The last few days have seen a mon­soon re­vival of sorts in parts of the coun­try — in cen­tral and west­ern In­dia where rain­fall has been sparse so far —but it is un­clear whether it is enough to wipe out the cu­mu­la­tive deficit. The same un­cer­tainty ap­plies to the fate of farm­ers. “The rain re­vival might have saved some of the stand­ing crops that were on the brink due to the long break in sev­eral key grow­ing ar­eas; but how far it will im­pact the fi­nal out­put re­mains to be seen,” says Shi­raj Hus­sain, for­mer sec­re­tary in the min­istry of agri­cul­ture.

Though the agri­cul­tural pic­ture will only be clearer dur­ing the har­vest sea­son that starts from Oc­to­ber, the re­al­ity of a mon­soon short­fall can also be seen in the wa­ter lev­els in the coun­try’s 91-odd reser­voirs. As on Au­gust 24, the lev­els were less than last year’s and also lower than the 10-year av­er­age stor­age avail­able in these reser­voirs.

The hope, then, is that the heav­ens open up in Septem­ber, but by this month the mon­soon sys­tem weak­ens markedly so that the amount of rain that the coun­try gets will go down with each pass­ing day. IMD has pre­dicted nor­mal rain­fall in Septem­ber, but this is the month that re­ceives the least rain.

“It is ex­tremely crit­i­cal how the mon­soons progress from here. For the en­tire econ­omy to ben­e­fit, the mon­soons have to re­sult in bet­ter crop yields for the farmer and bet­ter prices for their pro­duce, which will be known at the end of the kharif sea­son,” said Ankur Ag­grawal, Man­ag­ing Di­rec­tor of Crys­tal Crop Pro­tec­tion, an agro-chem­i­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing and mar­ket­ing com­pany.

For the state and cen­tral gov­ern­ments, Septem­ber will de­ter­mine whether they should trig­ger a call for in­ter­ven­tion and re­lief. Some states like Ma­ha­rash­tra, which suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing two years of drought in 2015 and 2016, have al­ready held talks with of­fi­cials in rain-de­fi­cient dis­tricts. But one thing is cer­tain: With eco­nomic growth hav­ing pro­gres­sively slowed since 2016, chas­ing the mon­soon will be more than a recre­ational past-time this year.

The last few days have seen a mon­soon re­vival of sorts in parts of the coun­try, but it is un­clear whether it is enough to wipe out the cu­mu­la­tive deficit

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