Delayed monsoon jeopardises India’s economic revival

Delayed monsoon rains are threatening India’s vast agricultural sector and endangering the revival of an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Farmers in fertile northern and central states such as Punjab, Haryana and parts of Madhya Pradesh are waiting anxiously for rain after the monsoon’s ascent up the Indian subcontinent stalled.

“The crops are like on a hospital ventilator due to the lack of monsoon,” said Kedar Sirohi, a leader of the Aam Kisan Union, or Common Farmers’ Union, in Madhya Pradesh.

He said farmers in his state, where irrigation facilities are limited, had planted their soya, cotton, sorghum and pulse crops almost three weeks ago, but their seedlings were withering. “We need good rain within four or five days, or we will lose 30 to 40 per cent of our production,” he added.

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Half of India’s population of 1.4bn depends on agriculture, making the monsoon vital not only to their livelihoods but the wider economy, too. Initial predictions of a good rainy season, which runs from June to September, were a rare bright spot in a country reeling from a calamitous second wave of the pandemic.

After the economy contracted 7.3 per cent in 2020, the IMF projected in April that India would expand by 12.5 per cent this year. But forecasts have been pared back sharply since the recent Covid surge.

While parts of the country have received adequate or even heavy rainfall, swaths of central and northern India have remained dry. Punjab, one of the country’s largest producers of rice and other staples, has received little or no rain.

India’s meteorological department expects rains in those regions to fall soon. But Giriraj Amarnath, a researcher for the International Water Management Institute, said further delays would result in lower crop yields.

“This will certainly have an effect on the economy,” he said. “Production, pricing and export of those crops . . . will ripple from there through the value chain.”

The monsoon supplies more than two-thirds of India’s rain. Less than 40 per cent of India’s agricultural land was irrigated as of 2015, the latest figures, according to the World Bank, leaving the rest dependent exclusively on rain.

“It’s an anxious time for farmers,” admitted Ajay Vir Jakhar, chair of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, or Indian Farmers Forum. He estimated that the monsoon was running a week to 10 days late.

“Irrigation water cannot fully compensate for rain water,” he said, adding that farmers would probably plant fewer crops.

“You need the moisture in the soil and in the air. It’s a whole ecosystem. When the water drops from the sky, it helps plants differently than when the water is given from the ground.”

Scientists warn climate change is destabilising the monsoon, with severe consequences for the hundreds of millions of people that depend on it. Indian government research shows that extreme events such as heavy rain and flooding, as well as droughts, are increasing.

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This makes south Asia “extremely vulnerable compared to other parts of the world”, said Avantika Goswami at non-profit the Centre for Science and Environment.

A good monsoon season last year was vital in India surviving the historic economic contraction sparked by a strict multi-month lockdown.

A bountiful harvest provided employment to returning migrants who had lost their jobs in cities, and stoked consumption of everything from motorcycles to consumer goods.

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