For the second successive year, the monsoon is likely to be below normal in India. That could trim farm output and push up food prices. Sluggish farm income growth can also hurt rural spending on most items and weaken the recovery. The forecast has come at a time when the government is battling an ‘anti-farmer’ tag over the land acquisition bill and also in the wake of massive crop damage due to freak rain and hailstorms in March. If the forecasts come true, this would be the first time in nearly 30 years that India would be experiencing deficient summer rain in two successive years. Importantly, this would be the fifth time in 15 years that the country would have had to deal with such a weather abnormality.
That begs the question why the authorities have dealt with such conditions in a reactive manner. Delayed rain can hit the planting of key crops. Paddy saplings, for instance, first need to be grown in small nurseries for 21 days before being transplanted or laid out in watery fields. Without timely rain, they will over-age.
Moreover, 60% of Indian farming has to just rely on the monsoon. India has no control over weather whims. Yet, much of the adverse impact can be neutralised by early planning and quick, nimble-footed decision making. For instance, what prevents the government from hiking payouts under the MGNREGA? For one, it will help arrest the slide in rural wages, vital in times of drought-like situations.
Also, if the government raises the volume of MGNREGA-related assignments during a crisis year, farmers with small land holdings will also likely join this work keeping their incomes constant. This, in turn, will keep the rural consumer spend intact, critical to keep the growth engine chugging.
Likewise, what prevents the government from floating global tenders for importing of pulses and oilseeds now instead of waiting until August to go buying in the global market? Similarly, what stops the government from forewarning hoarders with stringent punitive action that they may attract if found to be profiteering from stockpiling essential goods? What prevents the government from removing inter-state fiscal and physical barriers during a crisis year to allow a rapid movement of goods from surplus to deficit states?
These are valid questions all. Being armed with a fairly accurate early warning system can be a blessing, which the authorities and other stakeholders should use for the benefit of dealing with an emergency. Planning for a rainy day, or a no rain day, is an old adage. It is time India paid heed to it.