The southwest monsoon has been able to beat back a powerful El Nino, a dreaded weather pattern, and farmers quickly adapted with the right crops, helping India escape a major drought this year, according to Met department’s initial analysis and farm ministry data.
Yet, the June-September monsoon, about to enter its last leg, has been 12% deficient, precisely the extent of shortfall predicted by the Met department. That’s quite an underperformance, which means farm output and growth are likely to be average.
Viewed on a rainfall map, the monsoon appears quite unevenly spread. Rainfall was normal in 51% area of the country, surplus in another 13%, while in the remaining 36% area, it was deficient.
“Two things have emerged. A 16% surplus rainfall in June and the strategy adopted helped farmers select the right crops. Otherwise, a 12% overall shortfall would have been a real problem. Yet, to say there are no areas with stress would be untrue,” Met department chief Laxman Singh Rathore told HT.
The monsoon is vital for Asia’s third-largest economy, as two-thirds of the population depend on farm income and nearly 60% of agricultural land have no source of irrigation. A good monsoon drives up rural incomes and demand for goods, while keeping inflation low.
The Met had forecast the monsoon to be 88% of the average of 89cm (35 inches). This denotes a “deficient” monsoon, one level lower than the milder “below normal” category. The monsoon is considered normal if it is within 94-106%.
The monsoon started on a weak note in June but a surge meant the month ended with a 16% surplus. This helped tide over a significant 17% shortfall in July. August was worse with a 24% shortfall. So what helped avert a largescale crisis?
“Drought is largely a management issue. Since the forecast was accurate, it helped the government devise the right strategy. Although the ground situation will show distress in some areas, by and large, farmers’ choice of crops was right,” Rathore, an agricultural meteorologist by training, said.
The monsoon itself had mitigating features, which meant it fended off what is developing into one of the most potent El Ninos ever. An El Nino, or little boy in Spanish, is a weather glitch marked by higher sea temperatures. Its effects can ripple around the world, from flooding in the US to droughts in India.
An oceanic weather system known to protect the monsoon, called the Madden–Julian oscillation, barreled across the Indian Ocean in June, dumping surplus rainfall that month.
Secondly, a metric called the Indian Ocean Dipole or IOD has remained ‘positive’. IOD is the difference in the surface temperature between two spots in the Indian Ocean. If the IOD stays “positive or neutral”, the monsoon fights El Nino better. The positive IOD also helped rain-bearing storms take off intermittently from the Bay of Bengal. Sowing data from the farm ministry show farmers have cultivated about 92% of the normal area so far. Although below average, size of this year’s summer crop is similar to last year’s.
The country’s rice crop covers 34.5 million hectares, while the normal is 38.8 million hectares. Pulses have been sown on 10.5 million hectares, compared to a normal of 10.8 million hectares. The area under oilseeds is 17.4 million hectares against a normal of 18.2 million hectares. Four states that account for over one-third of India’s foodgrain and five crops that make up more than a quarter of the total output of grains and oilseeds remain vulnerable, according to Crisil Research. But it could have been a lot worse.