The spectre of a back-to-back drought seems to have been exorcised for the moment, with the south west monsoon covering the whole of India three weeks ahead of its scheduled time of July 15. Cumulative rainfall has so far not only been 19 per cent above the average for this period, but also in excess or normal in 90 per cent of the country’s area. That includes the most drought-prone tracts stretching from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to North Karnataka, Telangana and Rayalaseema. The monsoon’s unexpectedly good start, barring in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, has enabled farmers to take up kharif plantings well in time. The area under pulses has almost doubled compared to the corresponding coverage during this period last year, while going up more than five times for oilseeds. This is welcome news, given the spurt in retail prices of pulses and indigenous edible oils following last year’s poor crop.
But the old adage of well begun is half done may not really hold good for the monsoon, as June contributes hardly a fifth of the total rainfall in the four-month season. While June rains are important for the initiation of sowings, plant growth and yields depend mainly on the showers received in July and August. The latter two months have a share of roughly 30 per cent each in the aggregate monsoon rainfall. In 2002, June recorded 9.4 per cent surplus rainfall and yet it turned out to be a drought year with a seasonal deficit of 19.2 per cent. The same happened more or less in 2004 — again a drought year despite a reasonably wet June. Both 2002 and 2004 were, significantly, El Nino years. The current one, too, has seen sustained warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which, meteorologists believe, is suggestive of a “strengthening” El Nino event that is historically associated with monsoon failures in India. And as the Met department chief, L.S. Rathore, has himself warned, many El Nino years in the past have begun well, only to end up in deficit.
Yet, one can take comfort from the much higher-than-forecast precipitation in June; at the least, it would have led to a substantial recharge of the soil moisture. That, coupled with water levels in the country’s major reservoirs currently at 111 per cent of last year’s corresponding live storage and 146 per cent of the average for 10 years at this time, should provide some buffer against dry spells in the coming weeks. One would, of course, hope these spells aren’t extended, though that’s something both farmers and policymakers need to be prepared for. As of now, it’s still too early for anybody, including the financial markets, to wish away monsoon fears.