Whimsical monsoon

| Updated on July 18, 2021

Rather than rely on forecasts, India needs contingency planning to deal with erratic monsoons

After arriving on schedule and deluging the country with above-normal rains until the second week of June, the south-west monsoon has played truant this past month, covering the whole country only by July 13. The delayed and patchy progress has led to the rainfall for the season dipping from a 28 per cent surplus over normal on June 23 to a 5 per cent deficit as of July 14. Latest data show only the southern peninsula receiving above-normal rains so far this season, while the north-west region now faces a 15 per cent deficit and central India a 6 per cent deficit. While the India Meteorological Department (IMD) is taking flak for getting both its long-range forecast and granular monthly predictions wrong, the monsoon not sticking to its script is quite par for the course. Data shared by IMD show that the all-India onset date for the south-west monsoon has swung over a wide range from June 16 to August 15 in the last 20 years. Rainfall patterns have also changed dramatically in recent years to deliver spells of excessive rains over fewer days of precipitation. With many dynamic variables influencing the monsoon and structural shifts being wrought by climate change, it may be best for policymakers to depend less on forecasts and have contingency plans in place.

Experience from years such as 2009-10 and 2014-15 show that it is not impossible to cushion India’s agricultural output from deficient monsoons. Agricultural output in recent years has shown a higher correlation with the area sown than the quantum of rains. This year, kharif sowing is down by 80 lakh hectares (12 per cent) compared to the same period last year. While acreage under rice (down 7 per cent) or sugarcane (up 2 per cent) aren’t of much concern, the sharper lags in rainfed crops such as oilseeds (down 24 per cent) and pulses (down 13 per cent) deserve attention, given high inflationary impulses and import dependence in these crops. Apart from ensuring timely availability of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, the Centre must tailor its policies on pricing, procurement, trade and duties on pulses and oilseeds to nudge farmers towards these crops. In preparation for the eventuality that rains remain deficient, centrally sponsored irrigation schemes need to be well-funded and timely supplies of short-duration, drought-resistant seed varieties ensured. Though the kharif crop hogs policy attention, the winter rabi crop now chips in with nearly half of the foodgrain output and two-thirds of the pulses output. Even in delayed monsoon years like the current one, measures such as improving reservoir storage and early announcement of rabi MSPs can prop up rabi acreage to make up for shortfalls in kharif output.

It goes without saying that India also needs higher investments in climate change research and weather tracking infrastructure, so that it can formulate a new cropping calendar that adjusts to the whims of the monsoon.

Published on July 18, 2021

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