Amid signs of rising rural distress, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has delivered yet another cause for worry. On Wednesday, it announced that there is a 68 per cent chance that the country would receive less than the “normal rainfall” (between 96 and 104 per cent of the long period average). But it’s early days yet and some of the IMD’s pessimism may turn out to be unwarranted. For starters, the IMD forecast is significantly at variance with the predictions of private forecaster Skymet, according to which the probability of less than normal rainfall is only 18 per cent. The met department’s alarm seems to stem from the occurrence of the El Nino weather phenomenon in the western Pacific. In fact, earlier this month, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had raised the probability that El Nino would last through the summer to 70 per cent. But even the continuance of El Nino does not mean there would definitely be poor rainfall, for while almost all drought years have also been El Nino years, not all El Nino years have been drought years. For instance, in 1997, the year that saw the strongest El Nino of the 20th century, India got above normal rainfall.
Another factor — the Indian Ocean Dipole (unusually warm waters in the eastern Indian Ocean near Australia and Indonesia) — has to be taken into account. According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the IOD’s current “neutral phase” is expected to last until mid-year. This bodes well for the Indian monsoon. Indeed, a neutral IOD coupled with a weak El Nino could well mean a normal monsoon. Much also depends on the spatial and temporal distribution of rains, the forecast for which will only be out in June.
But in the event of a failed monsoon for a second year in a row, a bad situation would have been made worse. While the impact on inflation may yet be muted because of the global commodity bear cycle and our surplus grain stocks, rural distress would doubtless intensify. For the long run, the case for a robust crop insurance regime, where payouts are automatically triggered by deviations of weather parameters from their normal values, is compelling.