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Is hard rain a-gonna fall?

Although India is a services-driven economy, it still remains agrarian with vast tracts of cultivable area dependent on the monsoons, writes N Chandra Mohan. Read on...

india Updated: May 18, 2008, 23:09 IST
N Chandra Mohan
N Chandra Mohan
Hindustan Times

With the south-west monsoon active over the south Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, indications are that it will lash Kerala’s coast earlier than expected. Although this highly complex, dynamic system arrives with unfailing regularity, there is no telling exactly when it will set in, or for that matter, its behaviour over the season. Although May 29 is considered

D-Day for its onset this year, it could happen earlier on May 25 or as late as June 2, according to the India Meteorological Department (Met).

The prospect that this year’s rains will be near-normal — that is, 99 per cent of the long period average of 89 millimetres — is perhaps the best news for the UPA government that is battling food inflation with all means, foul and fair. This is a good augury for higher grains production during the kharif or summer season (sown in June-July). Thanks to a good rabi or winter crop of wheat, the government has already built up an adequate buffer stock of grain. All of this augurs well for an abatement of inflationary pressures.

On the other hand, if the rain gods are parsimonious, the spectre of drought and distress will haunt the countryside as it did in 2002. There is already a serious agrarian crisis in the country. Farmer suicides are on the rise in prosperous states like Punjab and Maharashtra due to indebtedness from crop losses. A bad monsoon makes matters worse in the parched countryside as it spells distress conditions for agricultural labourers and small farmers subsisting on rain-fed agriculture, besides triggering higher food inflation.

Although India is a services-driven economy, it still remains agrarian with vast tracts of cultivable area dependent on rains. The share of agriculture in the nation’s GDP may have declined to 17.5 per cent but three-fifths of its workforce lives off the land. It is this segment that gazes skyward and eagerly awaits the monsoon-bearing dark clouds, flashing bolts of lightning and rumbling thunder that cross Kerala, sweep over the peninsula and blanket the rest of India with rain till September.

Lest it be inferred that the monsoon hardly matters for India’s robust 8.6 per cent growth trajectory, it bears mention that a study done by Arvind Virmani, then Principal Adviser, Planning Commission, found that 45 per cent of the variation in India’s GDP over the last 50 years can be explained by the fluctuations in rainfall. If the rains were less in a particular year, there would be agrarian distress triggering a decline in GDP growth. Rebounds from such bad years were responsible for the 7 per cent plus spikes in growth.

The impact of weather-induced fluctuations is, of course, much more direct on agricultural growth. Thanks to a bad monsoon in 2002 — when the total rainfall was 19 per cent less than the long period average — agricultural GDP growth was minus 7.2 per cent in 2002-03. Similarly, as rainfall was 13 per cent less than the long period average in 2004, agricultural GDP growth plunged to zero in 2004-05. But in 2007, the rains were higher by 5 per cent and agricultural growth accordingly rebounded to 2.6 to 3 per cent.

Of all the regions, the bulk of peninsular India depends heavily on the monsoon. Sixty per cent of the net cultivated area in the country of 142 million hectares, for instance, is rain-dependent and the rest is irrigated. To get higher kharif foodgrain production, it is necessary that the rainfall be well distributed over the season and geographical space. Although shortfalls in any particular period can be made up in the remaining months, it is rainfall during July that is critical for sowing operations during the kharif season.

But the dynamics of the monsoon has its own unpredictable logic. In 2007, for instance, some regions of the country got less rainfall while others received excess precipitation. The north-west region thus experienced a deficiency of 15 per cent while there were bountiful rains in peninsular and central India. Overall, however, the season’s cumulative rainfall was 5 per cent above the long period average and ensured the sown area for rice, pulses, soyabean, sugarcane etc, was 2.8 per cent higher than a year earlier.

As a result, kharif foodgrain production in 2007-08 touched 120 million tonnes, which was 9.4 million tonnes more than in 2006-07 as per the latest advance estimates. For such reasons, good rains during the kharif season this year will ensure adequate supply of foodgrain and dampen inflationary expectations regarding cereals like rice and maize, pulses like arhar and edible oils like groundnut, soyabean and sunflower. But for this to happen, the monsoon must be evenly spread throughout the season.

The monsoon also has a bearing on the subsequent rabi season. Although most of the crops like wheat depend on irrigation facilities, it is necessary that rains are adequate to fill up reservoirs, especially in the country’s northern and central regions. The end of the 2007 season water stock in the 81 reservoirs was 79 per cent of full reservoir levels, lower than 87 per cent during the previous year. As of April 10, 2008, total live water storage was down to 31 per cent of full reservoir levels, according to the RBI’s review of macroeconomic and monetary developments.

With deficient post-monsoon rainfall, this meant that rabi sown area was less across all crops. Wheat output of 76.8 million tonnes in 2007-08 thus was only 1.3 per cent up from last year’s production. There is no real improvement in this regard from the sluggish trend of 72-75 million tonnes over the last eight years as productivity increases have tapered off in the vanguard agrarian regions of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. But the good news is that, unlike last year, farmers with surpluses sold their grain to the Food Corporation of India.

As the monsoon further advances into the waters surrounding the country, all eyes clearly are on when it will keep its rendezvous with the coast of Kerala. On a more personal vein, writing about this phenomenon has indeed been a pleasurable part of Deep Fish’s writings. And the credit for this must go to Mrs Nargis Gupta or Ma Gupu, his geography teacher in school — that just celebrated 150 years — who explained that it was the spin of the earth’s axis that was responsible for the monsoon clouds to swing over peninsular India.

Nine years after that, there was a much more direct experience with rains while doing research in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. From a hotel located on a hill overlooking the Kovalam beach, one could actually see this ‘entity coming’, to borrow an expression of travel writer Alexander Frater. With the state experiencing rains for 126 days, they are an integral memory of one’s stint there. Interestingly, schools open just when the monsoon sets in and the streets are full of children wading through the water.

The upshot is that the monsoon matters for the Indian economy. If the rains are good, they will reinforce the growth momentum. If they fail, the inflationary woes of the UPA government, now running at 7.8 per cent, will keep pouring.

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