A farmer squats at his dried-up field in Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, in Februry 2016. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

2019 Monsoon: Why India Does Not Declare ‘Droughts’ Any More

BloombergQuintOpinion

Year after year, the prediction of the south-west monsoon, which brings 70 percent of annual rainfall, is keenly watched by companies in agriculture business, insurance companies, and stock markets. The India Meteorological Department has come up with a new term, ‘near normal’, in its forecast for 2019. It may have satisfied the government in the election season but IMD’s press release of April 15 acknowledges that there is about 49 percent statistical probability of monsoon being below normal or deficient. The probability of a ‘near normal’ monsoon is only 39 percent.

Skymet has predicted that the monsoon is likely to be ‘below normal’ to the tune of 93 percent of long period average. It forecasts that there is 70 percent probability of below normal monsoon and 15 percent probability of drought.

Despite the preoccupation of state governments with elections, they would do well to prepare for a drought like situation as steps required for mitigation require advance planning and coordination between several agencies of centre and states.

What’s In A Definition?

With several of its long-range forecasts going wrong, in 2007, the IMD launched a new statistical ensemble forecasting system.

The error between forecast and actual rainfall did come down from 8.5 percent of LPA during 1996-2006 to 5.9 percent during 2007-2017.

While IMD strives to improve its dynamical prediction system, present-day weather science is not equipped to correctly make long term forecast of the Indian monsoon. It is even more difficult to predict extreme weather events like floods in Uttarakhand (2013) and Kerala (2018).

In the last five years, the country has faced two large failures of monsoon.

  1. In 2014, the deficit from LPA (of 50 years) was 12 percent at the all-India level. Uttar Pradesh had 46 percent deficit rainfall while Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra, Telangana, and Karnataka reeled under drought.
  2. In 2015 too, the rainfall deficit at the all-India level was 15 percent. States like Karnataka, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, UP, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand suffered crop losses of 33 percent or more.

From 2015, a year was declared by IMD as drought year if the rainfall deficiency was more than 10 percent and 20-40 percent area of the country was under drought conditions. A severe drought year was one in which more than 40 percent of the country’s area was affected by drought. So, India did not suffer a drought in 2015. It was, rather, a deficient year!

In the following year, IMD started using the term ‘deficient year’ and ‘large deficient year’ instead of ‘all-India drought year’ or ‘severe drought year’.
The dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, in April 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
The dried-up Manjara Dam near Latur, Maharashtra, in April 2016. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Now, states cannot declare drought only on the basis of rainfall and yield. They have to assess the situation on the basis of five parameters of rainfall, soil moisture, hydrology and remote sensing and state of agriculture. Funding from the centre under National Disaster Relief Fund is not available for moderate droughts.

Drop In Water Levels

Due to deficient rains in 2018, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra are affected by severe drought. Several reservoirs are highly depleted and if monsoon rains in this region are deficient, it may become challenging to provide drinking water for animals and human beings. The Nagarjunasagar reservoir, used by both AP and Telangana has only 3 percent water compared to a ten-year average of 11 percent of full reservoir level.

The reservoirs in AP have 82 percent less water than normal storage level of ten years.

Drought impacts not only rain-fed areas but it also affects the water level in irrigated areas. Several states in north-west India drain underground water year after year to grow paddy and diversification to other crops has remained a non-starter.

A water vessel sits on farmland near the village of Khardewadi  in Beed district, Maharashtra, on  Apr. 14, 2019. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A water vessel sits on farmland near the village of Khardewadi in Beed district, Maharashtra, on Apr. 14, 2019. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Also read: Tanker-Fed Beed Is Struggling To Find Water To Drink    

Market Distortions

Since paddy is the only kharif crop which is procured at MSP, farmers in irrigated areas prefer it to less water-guzzling crops even in drought years. As a result, overall paddy production has not really suffered even in years of severe drought. In 2013-14 which saw normal monsoon, rice production was 106.65 million tonnes. Despite droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16, it decreased by only 1.17 million tonnes and 2.24 million tonnes respectively.

In 2015-16, rice production in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Telangana and Maharashtra was severely impacted due to drought, but was largely compensated by other states.

  • For July 1, 2019, the central pool stock of rice is estimated to be 29.59 million tonnes against the buffer norm of 13.54 million tonnes.
  • Due to a record wheat crop this year, the stock of wheat is likely to be 47.6 million tonnes against buffer norm of 27.58 million tonnes.
  • In addition, the government has 3.4 million tonnes of pulses in its stock. So, it is unlikely that the price of wheat, rice and pulses will show any significant increase this year even if there is a deficient monsoon.

However, production of coarse grains and pulses is severely affected by deficient rainfall.

  • Production of coarse cereals in 2015-16 came down to 38.52 million tonnes from 43.3 million tonnes in 2013-4.
  • Similarly, the production of pulses decreased from 19.26 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 16.32 million tonnes in 2015-16.

This deficiency caused open market pulse prices to rise in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Compared to 2013-14, the food grain production in 2015-16 came down by just about 5 percent.

So, it is unlikely that the food security of India will be impacted even if there is a deficiency in rainfall. However, farmer income in rain-fed areas will take a hit as they suffer not only loss of crop production but also spend more on the upkeep of animals.

In this scenario, the rising number of bulls, out-of-milk and old cows may also cause additional damage to crops.

Also read: The ‘Angriest’ State in India Is Plagued by Suicides and Drought

Being Prepared

The Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture, an institute of Indian Council of Agricultural Research has prepared contingency plans for 633 districts. The plan has specific recommendations for tackling delay in the onset of the monsoon by two, four, six, or eight weeks. There are action plans for early season, midseason and end season droughts for rainfed areas. Based on these plans, states have to arrange seeds and disseminate information to farmers. If monsoon rains are normal, some investment in seeds is required to be written off.

The district collector is responsible for coordination between various departments.

Since the officers are busy with elections, it may be useful to exempt at least one Additional District Magistrate from election duty and assign him full time to prepare for any contingency arising out of deficient rainfall.

The management of a drought cannot wait until July or August. If IMD’s prediction of a normal monsoon does not come true, the economy, in general, may take a hit. So, prudence requires that we prepare in advance.

Siraj Hussain is Visiting Senior Fellow ICRIER. He retired as Union Agriculture Secretary.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.