A So-Far Subdued Monsoon Has India on Edge

For about a month, Indian foreheads have been creasing at growing fears that the rains brought by the annual southwestern monsoon -- the climatic feature that most strongly distinguishes the subcontinent -- are going to be less than normal this year.

As of this week, the rain shortfall in India was about 22 percent, compared with the 50-year average, and the shortfall in several critical regions was worse. A rain map of India in 2011, a year in which the monsoon was close to normal, is here, revealing the enormous variations seen across a landmass as large and yet local as India.

Monsoon rains are crucial to India's agriculture and economy, because they provide about four-fifths of the country's annual rainfall, because much of the arable land is still mainly rain-fed, and because about two-thirds of the population still depends directly or indirectly on agriculture (even if agricultural output comprises a much lower percentage of gross domestic product than in decades past).

Further, farmers traditionally plant major Indian staples, such as rice, cereals and oilseeds, in early June based on meteorological estimates of when the monsoon is likely to arrive, such as those provided by the Indian Meteorological Department. So this is risky business (especially since the monsoon sometimes also brings floods that are just as damaging) and a fat anthology could be compiled of all the prayers and songs nurtured in the subcontinent over the centuries propitiating the rain gods and celebrating the arrival of rain and the sowing season. Drought years -- technically, those years in which rain is more than 10 percent below the annual average of 89 centimeters (35 inches) -- lead to lower farm yields, especially in central and south India (the north has better artificial irrigation), food inflation, lower disposable income and consumption in the rural economy, and a knock-on effect on the economy at large.

In the business newspaper Mint, Anil Padmanabhan wrote in "Beware The Ides of July":

As of now, experts are still hedging their bets while expecting the worst. In a story published on Saturday in Mint, Abhijit Sen, member, Planning Commission, said, “If rainfall is less than 10% of normal, there may be a meteorological drought, which may or may not lead to an agricultural drought (which would result in a sharp fall in agricultural production).”

However, all the parameters available in the public domain indicate the onset of another drought, or at the least they mimic those observed in previous episodes of drought. The question to ask is whether it—meteorological or agricultural—will be widespread or restricted to the present critically rain-deficit spots such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. The former would help contain the risk locally, while the latter would be an unmitigated disaster for the economy.

Things aren't as bad as they once were, though. At one time India was so dependent on a normal monsoon that a report in 1925 called the economy "a gamble on the monsoon." But now, as an article in the Indian Express called "Mapping The Monsoon" argues, because of larger buffer stocks of food grain, improved artificial irrigation systems and better contingency plans for drought years, a poor monsoon isn't the shock to the entire system that it used to be.

Three years in the last decade (2002, 2004 and 2009) have been logged as drought years without macroeconomic statistics showing much of a dip. Yet, as the economist Yoginder Alagh, an influential voice on agricultural policy, wrote in a piece called "India Is No Longer A Monsoon Economy": "A lot of people still depend on the rains and agriculture, and to average out their fate is bad statistics." Alagh recently chaired an interesting report produced by the Confederation of Indian Industry called "Food Security & Variable Monsoons."

The longevity and remarkable stability of the monsoon as a feature in the life of the subcontinent were marked in an interview in the Asian Age with SC Bhan, the director of the Indian Meteorological Department, who said:

Monsoon is an Arabic word. It was first used by marines. It refers to the average seasonal reversal of the wind caused by the differential in the temperature of the land and the adjoining ocean. This reversal is most pronounced in India. Therefore, India has the most pronounced monsoon in the world.

Chanakya’s [text] Arthashastra (300 BC), while not mentioning the word monsoon, states that the rulers of his time used to collect land revenue on the basis of the quantum of rain available in a place. Arthashastra mentions a distinct rainy season in the months of Sravan and Prosthapadha (July and August in the Hindu calendar). There is also a mention of good and poor rainy seasons. In his epic poem, Meghdoot, [the ancient Indian playwright] Kalidas wrote that the monsoon (he too didn’t use the word) reaches Ujjain (in central India) on the first day of the Ashadha month, which means around mid-June. Even today the monsoon reaches Ujjain about the same time.

I'd go so far as to say that the Indian mind is distinctively shaped by the monsoon, not just in its awareness of the seasons but in a particular mood brought on by the coming of the rain after the long hot summer. The monsoons are often the only time on the Indian plains when the skies are mobile, layered, dramatic; for the rest of the year they are blue and cloudless. The hot, flat light so typical of the subcontinent subsides, and the pearly grey light that now suffuses the world brings on a mood of contemplation. The early showers release the most aromatic vapors from the long-parched earth, and the high pitch and clamor of life on the entire subcontinent seem by unspoken consent to drop down a few notches.

Earlier this month, I wandered by road and rail without a fixed destination in mind , first in Maharashtra, on India's west coast, and then more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away in Odisha, on the east coast, admiring the massive banks of dark, scudding clouds; watching squalls of rain come gusting in from a distance; listening to the wind pick up and fall, violently agitating copses of trees and banks of reeds; and enjoying the stinging raindrops on my face and as they shelled the earth. It felt wonderful to be alive, but it'll feel even better if the rains pick up over regions further inland in the coming weeks, where millions of farmers await them, and if the monsoon of 2012 ends up reaching, by September, 96 percent of the long-period average, which is what the IMD still promises.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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