India is faced with the possibility of two adverse weather events this calendar year — the ongoing heat wave in northern India continuing over the next two months, as it did last year; and an El Nino development in the Pacific that could destabilise the monsoon. At the outset however, it must be said that the alarmists are at large now, following a projection by the World Meteorological Organisation that 2023 is likely to be an El Nino year.
As for the ongoing heat wave, while this February was the warmest on record since 1901, with rainfall too below normal levels by 68 per cent, it is still too early to conclude that the wheat crop will be hit. If the weather cools in the next 10 days, the yields may remain intact, unlike last year when record temperatures impacted yields in many regions by 15-25 per cent, according to ICAR.
Besides, wheat prices in the open market are unlikely to spiral out of control, as open market sales have helped pre-empt shortages. The chaos generated last year over the promise of wheat exports, which led to diversion of stocks away from procurement in a year of lower output, will not repeat itself. Besides, the wheat export ban is in place.
However, the government should step in if farm prices drop below MSP in regions such as Uttar Pradesh (which accounts for about a third of wheat output) where procurement is not efficient. It could implement the ‘Bhavantar’ scheme to make up the price shortfall.
And even if El Nino does materialise, its impact on India’s monsoon would depend on many factors: the region in the Pacific where the El Nino warming is unusually high; the time of the year when El Nino intensifies; the extent to which the Indian Ocean Dipole or Indian Nino negates the larger El Nino effect; and the winter and spring temperatures in the Eurasian region.
Besides, it cannot be readily assumed that a drop in rainfall will lead to a huge impact on output. While 50 per cent of India’s farm area remains rainfed, the reliance on groundwater has possibly curbed the output effects of deficient rain, according to an ICRIER paper by Ashok Gulati et al (June 2014).
Even as the impact of El Nino on the monsoon, and in turn output, is subject to many imponderables, governments can take pre-emptive steps. An income stabilisation fund for farmers hit by drought and heat waves should be created. The IMD should come out with a ‘heat forecast’ early in the calendar year, as it would throw some light on the behaviour of the monsoon as well.
This could enable the ICAR to issue advisories on sowing and cropping patterns. A shift away from rice to millets and pulses could be mooted. Water saving and moisture retention practices such as micro-irrigation should be given special attention.
A plan to provide for the fodder needs of livestock while shielding them from high temperatures should be in place. These steps should be seen as all-weather initiatives.