The country has, for the first time since 1986-87, experienced back-to-’back monsoon failures.
The just-ended south-west monsoon season has registered an overall rainfall deficit of 14.3 per cent relative to the ‘normal’ long period average for June-September, according to data from the India Meteorological Department. That makes it a deficient monsoon, which is defined in terms of the country as a whole receiving at least 10 per cent less rains than the normal area-weighted average of 890 mm during the four-month season. The monsoon was similarly deficient by 11.9 per cent in 2014 as well.
Consecutive monsoon failures are very rare. Since the last century, there have been only three other such instances: in 1904 and 1905, 1965 and 1966, and 1987 and 1988. The interesting thing this time, though, is that back-to-back drought — as many as 23 out of the country’s 36 meteorological subdivisions have reported rainfall deficiency exceeding 10 per cent — has not led to any runaway inflation.
Annual consumer price inflation was a mere 3.66 per cent in August and minus 4.95 per cent for the wholesale price index. The latter inflation has, in fact, ruled negative for 10 straight months now. On Tuesday, Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan felt emboldened enough to cut benchmark interest rates by 50 basis points. Such monetary loosening even in the face of monsoon failure has probably never happened before.
What it means is that, unlike in the past, the brunt of the current drought has been borne by farmers and agricultural labourers, not consumers. This, of course, has largely to do with the collapse in global prices of commodities, insulating consumers from any domestic supply shocks on account of poor monsoons. There hasn’t been any major price increases for most food items, barring pulses and onions. But for farmers, production setbacks on top of lower realisations — for everything from cotton, sugar and soyabean to maize, basmati rice and rubber — has translated into significant income losses.
The behaviour of the south-west monsoon has also been unusual. It started off very well, with June recording 15.8 per cent surplus rainfall — the most in any previous drought years, as the accompanying table shows. But as the season progressed, each month turned out to be worse than the preceding one. There was a brief period of revival during the second half of July, which was, however, followed by a dry and hot August.
The effects of a ‘strong’ El Nino event ultimately proved too much, more than neutralising any ‘positive’ Indian Ocean Dipole, Madden-Julian Oscillations or other such countervailing weather phenomena.
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