Weatherman Predicts A Near-Normal Monsoon. But Take It With A Pinch Of Salt
A bullock cart travels through a cattle shelter in Beed district, Maharashtra.  (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Weatherman Predicts A Near-Normal Monsoon. But Take It With A Pinch Of Salt

India’s weatherman has forecast a near-normal monsoon this year. But the bad news is that in seven of the last 10 years, it underestimated rainfall deficiency.

That’s what an IDFC Asset Management Company note, authored by its economist Sreejith Balasubramanian, cited to underscore the patchy record of the Indian Meteorological Department.

IMD’s April forecasts since 2009 have largely underestimated the shortfall in rainfall each monsoon, according to the note. It has also not been accurate with its predictions of the surplus, with its estimates falling short in each of the three excess-rainfall years.

Weatherman Predicts A Near-Normal Monsoon. But Take It With A Pinch Of Salt

In its first monsoon forecast on April 15, the weather department had forecast a near-normal rainfall at 96 percent of the long-period average (+/-5 percent) with persisting El Nino conditions—warmer Pacific waters—likely to weaken as the season progresses. The onset is expected on June 6.

Private weather forecaster Skymet, however, said that monsoon rains are more likely to be ‘below normal’ due to growing El Nino conditions.

While a weaker or short-lived El Nino could aid monsoon, not all El Nino years have witnessed deficient rainfall years, the IDFC note said. The onset, duration, strength and timing of the peak of El Nino during the season matters. A late-season occurrence might cause an early withdrawal of the monsoon rainfall, which reduces soil moisture (and impacts sowing) in the following October-March rabi season. Similarly, a weak and or short-lived occurrence may not impact rainfall much, the note said.

But ultimately the distribution of the monsoon matters and not just the headline numbers, according to the note. The progress of rainfall alongside crop sowing in key regions holds the key.

More Than Just Rainfall

It’s not the performance of monsoon rainfall that alone is crucial. The run-up to the season—rainfall pattern in previous months, reservoir levels in regions with higher irrigation levels—are factors to watch. That data hasn’t been good since the previous monsoon. According to the note:

  • The 2018 monsoon was 9 percent deficient, with 31 percent of the country’s area receiving below-normal or deficient rainfall.
  • The post-monsoon October-December rainfall was 44 percent below normal, with more than 80 percent of the country receiving below-normal/deficient rains.
  • The January-February 2019 rainfall ended above normal, but the normal absolute rainfall during this season is very low and January ended in deficit.
  • The pre-monsoon March-May ended 25 percent deficient with about 61 percent of the country’s area receiving below-normal/deficient rainfall.
Weatherman Predicts A Near-Normal Monsoon. But Take It With A Pinch Of Salt

Reservoir levels play a key role for the July-October kharif season when rice, coarse cereals and pulses are grown. In the eventuality of a deficit rainfall, the water levels at reservoirs of top five producer-states of these crops pose a major threat to the yield, the IDFC AMC note said.

Gujarat and Maharashtra have one of the worst reservoir levels in the country. Uttar Pradesh— which grows all the above crops— will also get affected since a shortfall in the pre-monsoon rains and low reservoir levels affects sowing and production.

Weatherman Predicts A Near-Normal Monsoon. But Take It With A Pinch Of Salt

Things Could Get Worse If...

Coarse cereals contribute to 0.4 percent of the Consumer Price Index, while rice and pulses have a weight of 4.8 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively. If the production of rice and pulses is majorly hit, that will impact inflation and dampen rural incomes and consumption.

While retail inflation accelerated to a six-month high as food prices rose from unusually low levels in April, the IDFC note said sufficient government stock of rice and pulses will mostly smoothen any price impact.

But India’s overall agricultural scenario is also susceptible to various factors like global commodity prices which have been falling, government’s increasing rice stock levels, farm input costs being affected by rising crude oil prices, and a flat farm trade, the note said.

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