Fearing drought

Fearing drought

Barely emerging out of the shadows of freak weather, the warning of a weak monsoon will push millions of farmers into dire straits.

In the midst of all the noise and muck-slinging that dominates the election campaigns there is bad news on the horizon. No, I am not talking of the possibility of a hung Parliament where the numbers don’t add up for any political front, but the possibility of a post-election scenario wherein the rains fail. With 25 per cent probability of a drought, and slim chances of a bountiful monsoon in the north-western and central regions, dark days stare ahead.

Although the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has ruled out the possibility of the warm El Nino currents of the Pacific playing truant with the monsoon rains, a leading private meteorology agency Skymet has forecast a grim season ahead. The IMD dismisses these claims as a conspiracy by scientists in the US and Australia to rattle the commodity markets in India. “It is in the US and Australian interests that agricultural commodity and stock markets come down. They are spreading rumours. People will start hoarding and might start creating artificial scarcity of commodities. Don’t heed their advice,” Laxman Singh Rathore, director-general of IMD had said a few weeks back.

Although IMD has never been able to predict an impending drought, but I see merit in what it is trying to convey. The moment a below-normal monsoon warning goes public, a lot of commercial interests benefit from the expected shortfall in rains. The resulting market sentiments push the food prices higher even when there is no shortfall in production. I have seen this happening in 2011 when food prices spiralled much before the low Kharif harvest had poured in. With business media channels daily naming the hot commodities where investors need to put their money in, commodity prices zoomed in expectation.

But while the agriculture secretary says the government is not overtly worried at the prospects of the rains failing, the fact remains that Skymet’s earlier forecasts have been quite accurate. In 2012, it predicted 94 per cent rainfall, and the actual was 93 per cent: the next year in 2013 rains were a little higher at 106 per cent against the estimate of 103 per cent.

This year, while the overall estimate of 94 per cent may not cause a significant drop in agricultural production and thereby impact grain availability considering the existing massive food reserves but what should be worrying is the prediction of a weak monsoon spread over northwest and west-central parts of the country – Gujarat, Saurashtra, Kutch, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, central Maharashtra, Goa, Konkan and parts of Karnataka and Telengana.

Matter of concern

What makes the monsoon forecast a matter of concern is the prediction that El Nino – warm ocean currents in the Pacific region that often causes severe draught in Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and India – might appear as the monsoon season gets along. While weather forecasters from Australia, China, South Korea, Japan and US have issued El Nino warnings, the saving grace is that such warnings were also issued in 2013 but somehow the impact was not as disastrous as many predicted. In 2013, the IMD had predicted the onslaught of El Nino in September when the rains were tapering off. In other words, El Nino does not cause heavy damage every time it emerges in the Indian Ocean.

In 2009, the Met Department had predicted 96 per cent rainfall as the long-term average but the country had faced one of the worst droughts in recent times. The actual shortfall in rainfall was a huge 23 per cent resulting in low agricultural production. Paddy alone registered a fall of 12 per cent in production. But in 2012, when rains were also predicted to be in the range of 96 per cent there was a delay in the onset of rains in over 70 per cent of the cultivable areas but the overall impact was not as severe as in 2009. Interesting, this year also Skymet is predicting rainfall to be 94 per cent of the long-term average and that does cause some concern.

If the weather plays foul it will be double whammy for farmers in central India. Unusual rains and hailstorm had lashed standing crop in the month of March resulting in a huge loss in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. As many as 24 lakh hectares in Madhya Pradesh and another 18 lakh hectares in Maharashtra were hit by frequent hailstorms. Excessive damage was also reported from parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.The centre had provided a package of Rs 1,351 crores to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra for relief purposes.

Barely emerging out of the shadows of freak weather, the warning of a weak monsoon (and probably enlarging into a drought) will push millions of farmers into dire straits. Already reeling under a terrible agrarian distress, a severe drought even in some parts can leave behind a crumbling rural economy and a battered farming community.
Earlier too, in 2002 and 2004, which happened to be drought years, rainfall deficiency was to the tune of 22 per cent and 17 per cent. Let us hope the raingods do not deceive the country in the coming months.

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