Big rainfall deficit may stoke food inflation further
The immediate impact of a weakening monsoon will be lower farm produce and could make essentials such as sugar, pulses, rice and vegetables more expensive.
While national attention is focused on heavy rains in the North and the huge toll it has taken, the looming crisis of deficient rains and drought the rest of the country is facing seems to have gone unnoticed. After a very wet July, rainfall has been patchy, with a record 40% deficit in August, a month traditionally associated with a strong monsoon. Weather experts have warned that with little rain seen since August 21, this month could be one of the driest in history since 1913. Overall, the country might see the poorest monsoon in eight years. In Maharashtra, Opposition parties have demanded the state be declared ‘drought-affected’. Marathwada and many other regions face arid conditions, and the water levels in the state’s over 900 dams have dropped to 30% of capacity.
Meteorologists are concerned that the withdrawal of the monsoons for these long periods is a sure sign of the El Nino effect—a weather pattern generated in the Pacific that suppresses rainfall and enhances dry spells. There is also concern that the El Nino impact may continue, and the lack of precipitation may spill over into September. India could end with a rainfall deficit of as much as 8% this year—the worst since 2015. These are serious implications for a country where the monsoons account for 70% of the rainfall and water 60% of the sown area.
The immediate impact of a weakening monsoon will be lower farm produce and could make essentials such as sugar, pulses, rice and vegetables more expensive. As it is, for July, inflation rose to a 15-month high of 7.44%, mainly driven by high food prices. The government, conscious of the inflationary spiral, banned non-basmati rice exports to ensure sufficient domestic supply to keep prices in check. There has been heavy collateral damage, though. With India being the world’s largest rice exporter, prices in the international market have gone soaring. Back home, the export ban has come in the middle of the sowing season, and farmers are switching to other crops, shrinking the acreage under rice by 5% or more.
While we count the falling dominoes, the immediate need is to ensure food security and to mobilise drinking water tankers, fodder camps and employment guarantees during possible drought periods. In the longer term, ramping up our irrigation systems to counter the increasingly erratic monsoon pattern is key.