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Delayed Monsoon Keeps India On Edge

By Devinder Sharma

05 July, 2012
Ground Reality

Once again the rain gods are playing truant. With 31 per cent shortfall in June, and with an expectation of only 70 per cent of the predicted 96 per cent rainfall for the July- August months, crucial for farming operations, kharif crops face a real threat.

In June alone, India's Ministry of Agriculture has calculated the shortfall in paddy transplanting to be around 26 per cent in the frontline agricultural states of Punjab and Haryana. Sowing of maize, bajra, jowar have been much low in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka. Although the Ministry claims that the sowing of pulses, oilseeds and sugarcane has been near normal, any further delay will have a serious repercussion on kharifproduction. Even in Uttar Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, the standing crop is coming under pressure with every passing day.

If the rains get delayed by another week or so, all estimates will go topsy-turvy. It will then be time to press the panic button.

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is trying his best to play down fears of an impending drought. Coming at a time when the annual growth has slipped to 6.5 per cent, any indication of an expected shortfall in agriculture production will send the markets soaring. While any loss in production following the dry spell will further hit the growth story, it will also push up food inflation thereby inviting a lot of drubbing for the government. “We are fully prepared to meet any rainfall deficiency situation, and all states have been directed to be ready with the farm ministry’s contingency plans,” he said.

What makes the monsoon forecast a matter of concern is the prediction that El Nino – warm ocean currents in the Pacific region that causes severe droughts in Australia, Southeast Asia and India – might appear in September. The US-based International Research Institute for Climate and Society as well as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has predicted the possibility of El Nino striking in the latter half of the year. Our own meteorological department thinks the chances of El Nino appearing in September is around 36 per cent. If that happens, it will mean a drier September which would certainly result in production loss at the time of grain formation in standing crops.

How serious is the impact of El Nino factor can be gauged from the fact that the previous five droughts in India were all because El Nino had appeared in a significant form. Globally, if you examine the meteorological data of past 110 years, of the 21 major droughts 15 were caused by El Nino. The fury and intensity of El Nino cannot be simply glossed over.

It isn’t easy to make correct long-term predictions about the behaviour of monsoon. Not only the Indian Met department, even internationally the predictions have not been sharp and correct. This year the predictions by some of the best known institutes abroad for monsoon range from complete failure to normal. Over the years, the IMD has moved away from the statistical method to a more improved dynamic model but to expect that the predictions will hit the bull eye is still far away. In fact, the Met Dept has not been able to predict drought in the past 130 years.

In 2009, the country faced one of the worst droughts in recent times. The Met Department had predicted 96 per cent rainfall in the long-term average. The actual rainfall was short by a whopping 23 per cent resulting in a loss in paddy production to the tune of 12 per cent. This year too, the Met Department has predicted monsoon to be in the range of 96 per cent, and there has already been a delay of about a fortnight in over 70 per cent of the geographical area.

Even if the deficient monsoon turns into a drought, the redeeming factor is that the country is saddled with a record 82.4 million tonnes of wheat and rice. There is no danger of an impending famine in case production slumps from an impending drought. With such comfortable food stocks, the government should be able to judiciously distribute it among needy states and at the same time make open-market releases so as to bring price rise in staple food under control. Also, there will be no need to look for food imports considering the sufficient stocks lying within the country. In any case, international wheat supplies too is expected to slump following a severe drought in the midlands region of US, comprising the wheat production belt.

This is why India must spurn the G-20 directive which makes it obligatory for member countries to export any surplus food. Although the G-20 objective is to ensure that the global food prices don’t harden in wake of short supplies, India cannot afford the luxury considering its huge population and the need to maintain enough foodstocks at all times for precariously balancing its food security needs. Domestic policies therefore have to take precedence over international obligations. Allowing the export of skimmed milk powder just a month before the monsoon begins too is not a worthwhile decision knowing well that milk production drops in summers. A prolonged dry spell is first going to hit dairy production.

Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture policy analyst. His writings focus on the links between biotechnology, intellectual property rights, food trade and poverty. His blog is Ground Reality


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