Opinion

A drought of a different kind

HARISH DAMODARAN VINSON KURIAN | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on July 29, 2014

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The impact of rains failing this time will be felt more by farmers than consumers

The south-west monsoon’s behaviour this year has confounded everybody. Towards early April, meteorological agencies worldwide were almost unanimous in concluding that 2014 would be an El Nino year. Worse, it wasn’t just El Nino — an abnormal warming of the east-central Pacific Ocean waters, leading to increasing evaporation and cloud-formation activity around South America and away from Asia — but a peer event on the Indian Ocean that, too, gave the jitters.

A ‘negative’ Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) — wherein the eastern waters of the ocean adjacent to Indonesia and Australia become unusually warm relative to the western tropical part — is prejudicial to the monsoon, as it hampers convective activity in the Bay of Bengal. The negative IOD, like El Nino, was also anticipated to be a strong event. In combination, they were feared to deliver a double whammy to the Indian monsoon in 2014.

No El Nino this

These forecasts seemed to bear out in June, with the country receiving 43 per cent below-normal rainfall. It is another matter that this had little to do with either El Nino or a negative IOD. Most global models predicted El Nino’s onset only in the second half (August-September) of the monsoon. Similarly, while the IOD index was negative since mid-June, it needed to remain so into August to qualify as an ‘event’.

Simply put, the massive June rainfall deficit was not due to the known ‘sea-based’ suspects.

Instead, ‘local’ factors — mainly unseasonal summer showers upsetting the normal heating pattern over the Indian landmass — were to blame. These showers basically capped the heating and prevented the formation of a ‘heat low’ at its usual north-western Indian perch. The monsoon is ultimately about moisture-laden winds blowing in from a high-pressure area (the Arabian Sea) to one of low pressure (over land) created by intense heating. A good monsoon requires the ‘heat low’ to stay pinned down to Rajasthan through May.

The untimely showers this time dislocated the ‘heat low’ to the east, thereby not allowing the atmospheric temperature and pressure gradients from developing to their optimal levels. This may have played a part in delaying the monsoon onset and also the 43 per cent rainfall deficit in June, according to Akhilesh Gupta, a former lead operational forecaster with the Department of Science and Technology.

July revival

The current month has, however, recorded a much lower shortfall of 11 per cent till July 28. The monsoon has been good, especially over the last two weeks. One cannot, though, rule out the rains failing again in August and September, courtesy El Nino and the negative IOD rearing their ugly heads. But interestingly, most global forecasters have lately been marking down the intensity of both events. El Nino is now seen to be of weak-to-moderate strength and may not strike before late-September. Likewise, the current consensus appears to favour a ‘weak’ negative IOD.

All in all, then, we may still end up with a monsoon not as bad as was feared!

But the fact that there were hardly any rains till mid-July is bound to leave its impact on this year’s kharif. The Agriculture Ministry’s latest progressive sowing data reveals a 39-43 per cent fall in pulses and coarse grain acreages over last year, with 27-30 per cent less for cotton and oilseeds.

In most crops, the normal sowing window is before mid-July. Around 70 per cent of soyabean planting in Madhya Pradesh last year, for instance, was completed in June itself. This year, 70 per cent of sowing — even assuming a substantial pick-up due to rains in the past week — would be after July 15. Delayed sowing could, in turn, hurt yields — more so for crops such as cotton, where peak boll formation happens after October and there is possibility of added moisture stress from El Nino manifesting by then.

But even in a worst-case scenario — of rains failing in August-September (as they did in 2009) and El Nino/negative IOD materialising concurrently — the resultant drought may not wreak real havoc. The effects, if any, will be more on farmers than consumers.

Farmers’ burden

The reason for this is international prices. September corn futures at the Chicago Board of Trade are currently ruling 25 per cent lower relative to last year, while down 11 and 18 per cent respectively for soyabean and wheat. Skimmed milk powder prices at the auctions of New Zealand’s Fonterra Cooperative Group — a benchmark for the global trade — have also dropped 28 per cent since December.

These declines are part of a wider trend. The accompanying table shows global prices of agri-commodities peaking in 2011-12. The droughts in 2004 and 2009 — and also the no-so-good monsoon of 2012 — coincided with this rising trend in world prices.

A drought this time, by contrast, would be amid an overall weak global scenario for agri-commodities prices. There would be that much less pressure, then, on domestic prices — barring for onions, potatoes, tomatoes and other perishable vegetables where there is very little global trading as well. This time’s drought could be more similar to the one in 2002: wholesale food prices rose a mere 2.5 per cent that year and by 1.3 per cent in 2003.

But while consumers may be relatively insulated, the same cannot be said about farmers. Their production costs, even if they manage to plant, will increase sharply this year.

To understand this, consider paddy. This is a crop requiring continuous standing water at a minimum 1.5 inches above the ground for the first 60-65 days after transplanting. In Punjab, for example, farmers transplant during the peak June summer. Given erratic electricity supplies, they give 7-8 irrigations through diesel pump-sets in June. With the monsoon’s arrival and the accompanying drop in temperatures, the irrigation requirement drops to half or less in July.

But Punjab this time has suffered 58 per cent rainfall deficiency, forcing farmers to go in for 4-5 extra irrigations. Irrigating every acre takes about five hours and each hour entails consuming three litres of diesel. At ₹58/litre, the cost of five extra irrigations works out to ₹4,350 an acre; it would be more if labour hiring charges are added. This cannot be compensated through higher minimum support price (MSP), already at ₹1,400/quintal on an average yield of 25 quintals/acre.

The last 10 years or so were beneficial for farmers, with rising global prices that were also conducive for raising MSPs. Today, they are caught in a bearish global commodity cycle, even as fuel and fertiliser subsidies are being withdrawn. A drought only adds to their woes.

Published on July 29, 2014
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