How to tackle erratic monsoon
This year’s monsoon was a normal one — that is, if one were to measure it purely in terms of aggregate. That’s how the monsoons, the lifeline of India’s agriculture (a lot of it, some say almost half, is rain-fed), and the weathervane of the country’s large rural economy, are assessed. But this monsoon (like some before it) has shown the futility of evaluating it like this.
A quick summary of this year’s monsoon will read thus: Early onset; a wet June; a dry July; a drier August (usually the rainiest month); a very wet September; no depressions over the Bay of Bengal between June and August; three breaks in the monsoon; and more instances of heavy and extreme rainfall than in recent years. That makes it evident that this monsoon has been far from normal. There may be only a marginal impact on agriculture this year — assessments are still being made — although heavy late-September rains in Maharashtra are reported to have damaged crops. Recent years have indicated that the patchiness or unevenness of even a normal monsoon is now a trend, not an aberration. Climate science bears this out — the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report specifically mentions erratic monsoons. The report also said that global warming will exceed 1.5 degrees over pre-industrial levels in the next two decades.
At one level, these data points indicate that managing risks will become even more critical in agriculture — all the more important given the huge social, economic, and political significance of the sector in India’s economy. At another, they highlight the central role science will play in agriculture — in terms of getting better at forecasts and developing climate crisis-mitigating technologies to developing crop varieties that can deal with droughts, wet weather and higher temperatures. The prime minister’s recent launch of 35 new crop varieties, including a drought-resistant variety of chickpea, is a step in this direction. But more is needed. And finally, these changes pose a significant challenge to agricultural planners and policymakers who will now have to answer tough questions: For instance, what happens to the cropping cycle if the monsoon rains are back-ended like this year? Or, what happens to crop patterns once temperatures increase in the grain belt? Or, will changing weather patterns boost the populations of pests that traditionally affect crops? At one time, these questions could have been dismissed as futuristic. Not any longer.