For India, the monsoon is more than just a cool respite: It’s the economy’s life-blood. It’s a long expedition nature undertakes each year. Drafts of early-summer breeze in from the southern Pacific stream northwards, preparing to travel more than 8,000 km to reach Asia in time and picking up moisture on the way. If the Pacific winds are one essential ingredient of a perfect monsoon, the Indian summer is another. In due course, the winds sweep the Indian landscape, with heat conditions just the right for rainfall to happen. In a normal year, during its four-month journey across the subcontinent, the monsoon hits Kerala in June, its first port of call in the Indian mainland.
Monsoon is said to be normal when rainfall is 96-104% of 89 centimetres, which is the 50-year average of rains during the season. This year, however, India continues to fret over the possibility of a poor monsoon. According to the Met department’s forecast released in April, the country is headed for a below-normal monsoon, amid a 60% chance of an El Nino weather pattern. Millions of farmers wait for the rains to begin in summer for sowing major staples. Delayed rains 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 on watery fields. Without timely rains, they will over-age. Half of India's farm output comes from summer crops dependent on the monsoon. For good farm output, the rains have to be not just robust but also evenly spread across states. The monsoon also replenishes 89 nationally monitored water reservoirs vital for drinking, power and irrigation. The country’s grain basket, Punjab and Haryana, has assured irrigation networks to fall back on, but 60% of Indian farming has to just rely on the monsoon.
Thus, there is a high degree of probability that the El Nino would influence the speed of the Indian economy’s recovery in 2014-15, besides pushing up prices. The economy is struggling to claw out of a sub-5% growth band, while retail inflation is hovering close to 10% on high vegetable and food prices. Deficient monsoon rains, besides fanning prices, could also hurt industrial recovery. When rain-dependent farm output is weak, rural income and therefore spending on almost everything go down. These forecasts add to the worries about a drought, which can stoke inflation and pose a challenge for the NDA government, appending fresh constraints to the new government’s first budget, which is just weeks away.