Owing to the influence of El Nino, 2023 has witnessed a notable decline in monsoon precipitation across India - the lowest levels since 2018. The season concluded with cumulative rainfall amounting to 94 per cent of the long-term average.

While a 6 per cent deficit in rainfall or a cumulative rainfall of 94% of the Long Period Average (LPA), falls within the “normal” category, a more detailed examination reveals significant irregularities in the distribution of precipitation. First, the monsoon started late, followed by excess rains in July. August emerged as the driest and the warmest month in India since the commencement of systematic record keeping in 1901. Finally, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and Madden Julian Oscillation (MJO) helped counter the negative impact of El Niño. The month of September received 13 per cent excess rains, concealing the erratic distribution by pushing the overall rainfall numbers towards normalcy. Month-wise, compared to the LPA, it was 91 per cent in June, 113 per cent in July, 64 per cent in August, and 113 per cent of LPA in September 2023.”

Excess in 7% districts only

In the end, out of the total 717 districts, rains in 221 districts were either deficient or large deficient. Out of the 36 meteorological subdivisions, only 26 (representing 73 per cent of the country) experienced normal rainfall, while 18 per cent of the country (or seven subdivisions) received subpar rains. Remarkably, only 7 per cent of the country’s area received excess rainfall.

According to ground reports, these erratically distributed rains have triggered concerns over the yield of kharif pulses, maize, soyabean, cotton, and paddy in different proportions and geographies. Insufficient rainfall reduces soil moisture, crucial for the growth of kharif crops, and the effects would later be reflected in the production numbers of these crops. Deficiencies in rains that ranged between 10 and 20 per cent of LPA in Bihar, Jharkhand, eastern Uttar Pradesh, and portions of West Bengal might affect the output of paddy, pulses, and oilseeds.

Despite the deficiency in rains, increased cultivation of water-intensive crops such as paddy and sugarcane resulted in the overall sowing marginally surpassing last year’s numbers. Fortunately, excess rainfall in July, the most crucial sowing month for Kharif crops and rain-fed areas of central India, mainly dependent on monsoon in the absence of adequate irrigation infrastructure, resulted in a late pickup in sowing.

The 195 drought-hit Karnataka taluks

However, the influence of “below normal” rainfall during this year’s monsoon season was evident in the sown areas of pulses and oilseeds, which recorded a 4.2 per cent and a 1.6 per cent reduction in acreage, respectively, compared to the previous year’s. Similarly, cotton acreage reduced by around three per cent compared with last year.

Karnataka received its first rain by mid-July, delayed by almost three weeks, postponing the sowing of maize and paddy, followed by an unusually dry August, making 195 of 236 taluks drought-hit. The impact on yield in this geography is inevitable.

Similarly, soyabean sowing in Maharashtra was delayed due to late rains, followed by the weather anomalies of August. The soyabean crop cycle, which usually lasts three months, was shortened by the late monsoon, as farmers had no option but to harvest the crop early and prepare farms for the next crop. This affects the maturity and yield of soyabean.

However, good rainfall during September, which may negate the illeffects on yields during August to some extent, has given new hope to cotton growers but proved harmful for the remaining soyabean crop. Although the maize crop had no major benefits from the late revival of rainfall.

Sugar production may also be impacted as the State has cumulatively experienced an 11 per cent shortfall in the major sugarcane production regions.

Deficient rains in rice-growing States

Most of the major rice-growing states, i.e., West Bengal, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, received deficient rainfall until August, but rains revived slightly in September. Uttar Pradesh, India’s second-largest rice-producing state, had a monsoon roller-coaster this season i.e., normal rainfall in the west and deficient rainfall in the east of the State. Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh growers experienced the least impact of the vagaries of the monsoon, despite some uneven distribution like heavy rains in July, crop damage, and a hot August and a healthy shower in September. The major crops of these States, i.e., cotton, groundnut, soyabean, paddy, and maize are expected to retain an average to good yield.

Rajasthan growers were lucky this season to receive very good rain in June as an impact of cyclone Biporjoi. However, prolonged dry spells with 55 days of no rain and then rains towards the harvesting time, when the crops were in the maturity stage during September, are expected to result in significant damage and deterioration of the quality of the standing crop of guar seed.

Inflationary fears

The aromatic basmati cultivation belt of Punjab and Haryana is apparently in good shape despite heavy flooding and crop damage during July. Basmati rice production might improve on the back of the favourable behaviour of the weather in the producing regions and witness better production.

Any shortfall in production due to lesser-than-normal monsoon rains raises inflationary fears on one end and reduces farmer incomes due to lower yields and crop damages, on the other. As rural incomes suffer due to the uneven monsoon, it impacts rural demand and, in turn, the total demand of the country.

Such erratic distribution of monsoon rains not only affects production and prices but also forces affected countries to take harsh policy decisions. Owing to the pre-empted ill effects of the monsoon India, the world’s largest rice exporter, limited rice shipments, imposed a 40 per cent duty on onion exports, permitted duty-free imports of pulses, and might potentially not allow sugar exports going forward. The government might continue with ongoing curbs on exports of rice varieties and wheat for a prolonged period.

A drop in reservoir levels below their historical averages due to scanty rains, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of India, raises concerns over the onset of the upcoming rabi sowing season, as these reservoirs are the primary source of irrigation for important rabi crops such as wheat, chana and mustard.

(The authors are Market Research and Price Intelligence - National Bulk Handling Corporation Pvt. Ltd (NBHC))