It’s a rather long expedition nature undertakes each summer. Moisture-laden winds deep in the Pacific start racing northwards, preparing to travel more than 8,000 km to reach the Indian subcontinent on time, usually by end-May. If the winds survive the arduous trip, a hot Indian mainland will turn them into a refreshing downpour. This year, there’s an El Nino in the way, most climate models have predicted. The weather-disrupting phenomenon is likely to cause India’s monsoon to be “below normal”, the India Meteorological Department said in its official forecast on Thursday.
The June-September monsoon, the life-blood of Asia’s third-largest economy, is critical because two-thirds of Indians depend on farm income and nearly 60% of the country’s cultivable land do not have any source of irrigation other than the rains. El Nino, ‘little boy’ in Spanish, is a climate glitch marked by higher sea-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific. It could have a ripple effect across the globe, from triggering storms in California to leaving India at greater risks of a drought. Historical data from a 126-year period (1880-2005) show less than half of El Nino events have impacted the monsoon. In 1997, one of the strongest El Nino years, rainfall was quite normal. Yet, in 2009, it triggered India’s worst drought in three decades.
In a darker era, drought was a word for catastrophe. The Bengal famine of 1943 killed up to four million. Today, droughts no longer spell disasters like they used to, thanks to good drought management. In 2009, the country managed to produce a million more tonne of foodgrains than in 2007, a normal rainfall year. The problems of a patchy monsoon are mainly economic in nature now. A deficient monsoon invariably raises prices, as it did in 2009, when food inflation soared to an 11-year high. Uncontrolled food prices soon became broad-based, spilling into what economists call ‘core inflation’, which refer to prices of non-food and non-fuel items.
A more pernicious danger is that a drought-like situation will keep the Reserve Bank of India from lowering interest rates, necessary for reviving growth. Governments generally fight inflation by raising interest rates, which cools demand and prices by suppressing credit-dependent economic activity. Such a scenario could lengthen the current ‘stagflationary’ environment, prolonging a turnraound. The monsoon, which helps replenish 89 reservoirs of national importance, also hits business by causing energy shortfalls, if it’s poor. The silver lining is that most climate models say this year’s El Nino is expected to peak only around late summer, a time when the monsoon reaches the end of its four-month journey.