With monsoon rains failing to show up in large parts of northwest India, fears of the first full-blown drought in five years are growing across the country’s grain bowl.
A drought at this point will make it almost impossible for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to deliver on many of the promises made in its maiden budget on Thursday, and complicate it efforts to tame inflation and revive economic growth.
Deficient rains have already led to a drought-like situation in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan -- major producers of sugar cane, cotton, pulses, soybean, vegetables and fruits -- leaving the government fretting over possible supply pressures that can drive up food prices.
Now, monsoon rains over Punjab and Haryana, the country’s bread basket, are 51% deficient this season, slowing down sowing of paddy and maize. Although most farms in the two states are irrigated, a shortfall in rains has led to long hours of power outage.Read: What do the Iraq crisis, poor monsoon mean for you
"The situation this year remains worrisome because of fear of deficient rains while the water level in both reservoirs -Bhakra and Pong is lesser this year," Chief Engineer in Punjab Irrigation department, Amarjit Singh Dullet told PTI.
This year, monsoon rains arrived five days late on the southern coast, and covered half of the country four days behind schedule on June 19, but since then it has failed to spread, delaying planting of summer crops. Earlier this month, farm minister Radha Mohan Singh had warned of a drought-like situation in parts of western India.
On Thursday, finance minister Arun Jaitley said in his budget speech that monsoon appeared to be more unpredictable this year.
July is a crucial month for sowing summer crops, and the timing, distribution and volume of monsoon rains are important for the planting of rice, oilseed, sugar cane and cotton.
The government has stockpiled staples such as rice and wheat from bumper harvests in the last few years but it has limited means to control a jump in costs of fruits, vegetables and dairy products that have a large impact on food inflation in India.Read: Moonsoon delayed; govt readies contingency plan
Already, the Centre has firmed up a contingency plan for more than 500 districts. It says rains were expected to improve after July 7.
The government has also moved to ease market concerns over supply shortages and price speculation with a number of steps, including raids against hoarders.
With global oil prices on the rise on fears of a supply squeeze from violence-torn Iraq, a bad monsoon will tie down the hands of the central bank to cut interest rates, hampering growth.
In 2009, India faced its worst drought in nearly four decades, forcing it to buy large quantities essentials such as sugar and more oil, adding to its import bill.
The farm sector accounts for around 14% of India's nearly $2 trillion economy, and about 60% of its 1.2 billion people depend on agriculture.
On Friday, severe heat wave conditions prevailed in some parts of east Rajasthan and north Madhya Pradesh. Heat wave conditions prevailed in some parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and west Rajasthan.
Monsoon rains were also where in sight in Delhi, where the season showers had been predicted to arrive late-last month.
A man carries a clay pitcher of water on his head as he crosses parched land on a hot day at the village Bhunerheri, some 12 kms from Patiala. (AFP Photo)