For a ruling party, facing the electorate in a drought year is the worst possible nightmare. That prospect seems unlikely for now, with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicting overall rainfall during the south-west monsoon season from June to September to be 97 per cent of the country’s historical long period average (LPA) for these four months. That technically translates into a “normal” monsoon, with only 14 per cent forecast probability of the rains being “deficient” (less than 90 per cent of LPA) and 30 per cent “below normal” (90-96 per cent of LPA).
The IMD has been getting its forecasts more or less right in recent times. It correctly predicted below-normal rainfall in 2014 and 2015 (both turned out to be drought years) and normal monsoons in 2016 and 2017 (both bumper harvest years), even if the spatial and temporal distribution (particularly in the second half of the season) may have been somewhat off the mark. There is some credibility, then, to its latest forecast of a third successive normal monsoon.
The farm sector per se accounts for hardly 16 per cent of India’s GDP today, but it still employs almost half of the country’s workforce and has a bearing on inflation. Food and beverages have a 45.86 per cent weight in the official consumer price index. A normal monsoon would keep a lid on food inflation, which, in the current context, will also neutralise the impact of rising oil prices and a weakening of the rupee. High food prices and farm distress from drought can be a potent combination in an election year.
A normal monsoon forecast, to that extent, should be welcome news for the Narendra Modi government and good for market sentiment as well — though a great deal would also depend on how the rains actually pan out during the season. Last year, for instance, saw good rainfall throughout India, barring the south, during June and July. But the second half was a disaster, particularly in the whole of central and eastern India, even as the rains staged a recovery in the south.
For farmers, rains are a necessary condition for their survival, despite the possibility of achieving significant drought-proofing with irrigation (through large canals, tube-wells and use of water harvesting, drip and sprinkler technologies) and proper crop planning. But as the experience of the last two years shows, bumper harvests are not sufficient to guarantee farm prosperity. The real challenge that farmers are facing today is not production, but prices. The IMD, no doubt, has done a decent job of forecasting rainfall or even adverse weather events. The farmer, however, is equally in need of price forecasting and market intelligence to enable informed planting decisions. That, unfortunately, is still missing.