IT’S RAINING DOUBT
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