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Fears of drought in India

July 30, 2012

WITH the south-west monsoon continuing to play truant well into the half-way mark, there are fears of a severe drought looming across India. The country as a whole had recorded rainfall of just around 320mm as against a norm of 405.3mm by July 26, a shortfall of more than 21 per cent.

One of the worst regions to be impacted by the shortfall is north-west India, comprising among others the agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. As against a norm of 250 mm between June 1 and July 26, the region had recorded a little over 155 mm, a massive 38 per cent drop.

Central India (which includes states such as Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra) and the southern peninsula (all the four southern states) have seen a 22 per cent shortfall each in rainfall between June and July.

In fact, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD) of the 36 meteorological sub-divisions of India, just one (accounting for one per cent of the land mass) has recorded excess rainfall this monsoon. Thirteen sub-divisions (accounting for 36 per cent of the area) have seen normal rainfall, while 18 (51 per cent of the area) have experienced deficient rainfall. The remaining four sub-divisions (12 per cent of land mass) have reported scanty rainfall.

The situation is equally precarious in terms of water resources in India. The Central Water Commission, which monitors the storage status of 84 important reservoirs across India, the total live storage as on July 19 was 29.95 billion cubic metres (BCM), or just 19 per cent of their storage capacity at full reservoir level (FRL). The current year’s storage level is nearly 59 per cent of last year’s storage and 74 per cent of the average of the last 10 years. Seventy-one of the 84 important reservoirs were at less than 40 per cent of their FRL.

According to R.C.Jha, chairman, Central Water Commission, the reservoir situation is similar to conditions in 2009 when the country faced one of the worst droughts in a century. “It will definitely have adverse impact on agriculture, not only on summer crops but also on rabi (winter) crops that need irrigation from reservoirs,” he says. “The power scenario will also take a hit.”

The IMD, which has been in the business of weather forecasting for more than 125 years, has been accused of virtually misleading the government, farmers and other stakeholders, by issuing bulletins projecting normal monsoon. In April, it forecast that the south-west monsoon for the country as a whole would most likely be normal – or 96 to 104 per cent of the long-period average (LPA).

Quantitatively, it added, the monsoon seasonal rainfall was likely to be 99 per cent of the LPA with a model error of plus/minus five per cent. The LPA of the season rainfall for India as a whole for the period 1951-2000 is 890 mm.


THE onset of the south-west monsoon was delayed by a few days, severely affecting the sowing of summer-grown crops in the crucial southern states. The IMD also finally accepted the warnings issued by weather services in many countries, warning of the El Nino impact, when the warming of temperatures over the Pacific Ocean adversely affects the south-west monsoon.

The department, which had in previous years ignored the El Nino warnings, acknowledged it this year and admitted that rainfall in the second-half of the season (August and September) could be impacted by the phenomenon.

It also revised its prediction for seasonal rainfall over the country and the four broad geographical regions, noting that rainfall for the country as a whole could be 96 per cent of the LPA (down from 99 per cent predicted in April) and ranging from 93 per cent of LPA for the north-west region, to 95-96 per cent of LPA over the southern peninsula and central India.

The south-west monsoons are crucial for the economy of the country, where just 45 per cent of the land is irrigated. The monsoons provide 75 per cent of the annual rainfall, with more than half of it being delivered in the months of June and July.

Though the IMD maintains there is a possibility of the revival of the monsoon in August and September, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has decided not to take any more chances with the vagaries of the weather or the inaccurate predictions of its own weather bureau.

For the first time since 2009, when the worst drought in nearly 40 years crippled India’s agricultural production, an empowered group of ministers (EGoM) on drought will be meeting this week to assess the situation. Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister – who last week triggered off a crisis within the government by threatening to walk out of the coalition government along with eight other MPs of his Nationalist Congress Party – said the government would launch contingency plans to tackle the drought.

Food minister K.V. Thomas – who does not get along well with the agriculture minister – has said the poor rains could impact production of pulses and oilseeds. Thomas, who has been accused by Pawar of arbitrarily imposing bans on exports of foodgrains, said the government was for the time being not contemplating any curbs on overseas sales, though it will review the situation next month.

With overflowing granaries and record procurement from farmers last year, the government allows the export of rice, wheat, sugar, cotton and corn. But with production of rice, oilseeds, pulses and sugarcane expected to be adversely impacted this year because of the poor monsoon, there are fears of a sharp spurt in food price inflation.


THE much-feared drought in India could coincide with similar crises in two of the world’s leading agricultural nations: the United States and Australia. Both the top grain exporters are reeling under the impact of the worst drought in recent years. In the US, more than 60 per cent of the country is facing deficient rains, which has hurt almost 80 per cent of the corn and soybean crops.

Global food prices are expected to soar this year, as demand from India – one of the world’s top producers and consumers of a range of food items – will expand sharply.

Ratings agency CRISIL Research, in its report ‘Monsoons – 2009 situation yet again?’ has warned that the impact of this year’s drought could be worse than that of 2009. “The hit to agriculture at a national level, on the basis of rainfall pattern till July 18, 2012, is almost as bad as it was in 2009,” says the report released last week. “This is likely to adversely impact agricultural GDP growth. The extent of damage will become clear once we have the full rainfall picture by the end of August. The performance of monsoons in the next few weeks will, therefore, be very critical.”

The agency measures the impact of rainfall using its Deficient Rainfall Impact Parameter (DRIP) index. CRISIL claims DRIP is a better indicator than just rainfall deficiency, as it captures the deficiency of rainfall (measured as deviation from normal) as well as the vulnerability of a region (measured as percentage un-irrigated area).

According to CRISIL, its index reveals that coarse cereals (jowar, bajra) oilseeds (groundnut, soyabean) and pulses (tur) have been most impacted by deficient rains. Among the worst-affected states are Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.