Southwest monsoon: Don’t bet your farm on it

Agriculture in India is largely rain-fed, and a poor monsoon or drought can have a huge bearing on farmers and the farm-dependent economy of the country. (PTI File Photo)

The Southwest monsoon is the most anticipated season in India due to the impact it has on agriculture in the country, with its direct and indirect effects on not just the country’s farmers but also the macroeconomy. Agriculture in India is largely rain-fed, and a poor monsoon or drought can have a huge bearing on farmers and the farm-dependent economy of the country. Alarmingly, Skymet has forecast the Southwest monsoon 2019 to be below normal at 93% of the LPA (Long Period Average of June, July, August and September (JJAS) -- 887 mm) with an error margin of +/-5%.

If we look at the spatial distribution, rainfall in East and Northeast India -- the rainiest pocket in the country during the Southwest Monsoon -- is 92% of the LPA, while in Central India, which stands second in terms of monsoon rain, the probability of rainfall is 91%. In the other two pockets of Northwest India and the Southern Peninsula, the prospect of rain is 91% and 95%, respectively.

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On the probabilities of normal, below normal, drought or excess rain, the following figures are the assessment of Skymet.

Monsoon 2019 probabilities for JJAS are:

0% chance of excess (seasonal rainfall that is more than 110% of LPA)

0% chance of above normal (seasonal rainfall that is between 105 to 110% of LPA)

30% chance of normal (seasonal rainfall that is between 96 to 104% of LPA)

55% chance of below normal (seasonal rainfall that is between 90 to 95% of LPA)

15% chance of drought (seasonal rainfall that is less than 90% of LPA)

 

El Niño, which is the unusual warming of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, has been impacting monsoon rains in India more often than normal in the recent past. This time, too, El Niño seems to be disrupting the monsoon pattern of the country. Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal in East India, along with central parts of the country, predominantly Vidarbha, Marathwada, southern parts of Madhya Pradesh and some parts of Gujarat, are going to bear the maximum brunt of the El Niño phenomenon.

Currently, the probability of El Niño condition is still over 60% through summer 2019, which includes the monsoon months. We can expect a decline in El Niño, but chances would still remain as high as 50% during the winter months.

The months of March, April and May have been fairly warm and with SST (Sea Surface Temperature) maintaining its threshold value, El Niño conditions continue to prevail, though on a devolving note. This clearly indicates a below normal monsoon rain in the country this year.

According to records, in the past 28 years from 1991 to 2018, El Niño was present in 10 years (1991, 1994, 1997, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2014, 2015 & 2018) during the Southwest monsoon. Two (1991 & 2018) out of the 10 El Niño years witnessed below normal or deficient rainfall while five years (2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 & 2015) witnessed drought.

Out of the 10 El Niño years, food grain production declined in seven years, with 2002 witnessing the steepest decline of 22%. Pulses (Kharif + Rabi) saw a decrease in production in six years out of 10, with a reduction of 16.7% in 2002. Soybean saw a decrease in production in five years out of 10, with a reduction of 22% in 2002. Rice saw a decrease in production in five years out of 10, with a reduction of 23% in 2002. Scanty rainfall this monsoon season will perhaps put the country in a similar situation.

About half of the food grain production in India comes from the Kharif output, which stands at around 140 million tons. The quantum and distribution of monsoon have a direct bearing on the sowing operations of Kharif and subsequent crops over many regions of the country. 

According to an analysis carried out by Skymet, paddy production is likely to go down in the upcoming Kharif season (2019-2020) to 97.78 million tons, which is a fall of about 4% compared to the 101.96 million tons produced last year. The area under paddy cultivation would remain the same. However, the vagaries of monsoon are expected to affect the yield primarily in the rain-fed areas. West Bengal, the largest paddy producing state in the country, is at the maximum risk of receiving poor monsoon rain.

However, soybean production is likely to increase by around 0.14% to 13.71 million tons, compared to 13.69 million tons the previous season. The area under soybean cultivation is likely to go up by 3.2%, but the increase in production will be marginal due to the forecast of below-normal rain.

Cotton production in the country is also expected to increase by 15.5% to 34.74 million bales in 2019-20, compared to 30.08 million bales last year. Cotton acreage on a national basis is likely to be higher by 2.7% to 12.57 million hectares. This is some good news for the cotton farmers staring at a gloomy monsoon season.

Agriculture contributes about 16% of India’s GDP. Therefore, a good monsoon is imperative for a bumper farm output, which helps in keeping food prices and inflation under check. High agricultural production also pushes up the incomes of rural people, which in turn boosts demand for consumer goods. Government spending also declines in a good monsoon year.

But with monsoon 2019 forecast at 93% of the LPA, the scenario does not look too good.

(The writer is founder and managing director, Skymet Weather Services)

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