Since mid-July, the monsoon has gone through a lull, with overall rainfall for the country during this time being around 22 per cent below its corresponding long period average (LPA). As a result, not only has cumulative rainfall for the southwest monsoon season from June 1 to August 4 been 9.2 per cent lower than the LPA, but 15 out of India’s 36 meteorological subdivisions have recorded deficiency exceeding 10 per cent. That, in itself, shouldn’t be worrying. “Breaks” in the monsoon are a normal phenomenon. The important thing this time is that much of the country — barring Bihar, Jharkhand and the North-East states — has received enough rains for farmers to take up kharif sowing operations. Even UP, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand — this entire stretch was parched until two weeks ago — have had very good rains in the recent period that has seen the rest of India go dry.
In short, this isn’t a bad monsoon — at least so far. That view is further reinforced by water levels in 91 major reservoirs, which are now 9.6 per cent above what they were a year ago and 10.6 per cent higher than the ten-year average for this time. What matters is how the monsoon performs from here on. It would determine the fate of the already sown crop in the crucial post-germination and vegetative growth stages. The India Meteorological Department (IMD), in its second half (August-September) monsoon forecast, has predicted rainfall for this month at 96 per cent of the LPA, with 53 per cent probability of normal-to-excess precipitation. Further, it has suggested a revival of monsoon activity on the back of a likely low pressure area forming over West Bengal in the next couple of days. That, if it happens, would be most timely. While private forecasters like Skymet expect the second half rainfall to be weak because of an evolving El Nino — the abnormal warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean waters — it’s necessary to note that the adverse impact of this event is always felt with a lag. And given the IMD’s better record, both in predicting below-normal monsoons in 2014 and 2015 and normal rainfall in 2016 and 2017, one would be more inclined to go with its view of El Nino not being much of a factor this time.
A good monsoon is, no doubt, a necessary condition for agricultural prosperity. But as the experience of the last two years shows, it is hardly sufficient to deliver higher farm incomes. The real challenge that Indian farmers are facing today is not production, but prices. Kharif plantings may be a tad lower than last year, but if the monsoon revives in the next few days, we could have yet another bumper harvest. Dealing with that, as opposed to droughts, is something our policymakers need to focus more on.