Drought scare: ‘Farm sector should be high on govt’s agenda’

By: and |
Updated: Jun 04, 2015 1:54 PM

Poor rains forecast for 2015 could flatline the sector’s growth, already hit by untimely rains and last year’s drought

India farm sectorShweta Saini, a consultant and Ashok Gulati, Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER say poor rains forecast for 2015 could flatline the farm sector’s growth, already hit by untimely rains and last year’s drought. (Photo: Reuters)

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast deficient rainfall for India in 2015, likely to be 88% of the long period average (LPA) of 89 cm, which is the average seasonal rain (June-September) received by the country in the 50 years between 1951 and 2000. The probability of getting below-normal/deficient rainfall is 93%, which is in contrast with the first forecast by IMD—less than 70% probability on below normal/deficient rains (at 93% of LPA).
But Skymet, a private sector weather forecaster, is holding on to its first forecast of a normal monsoon with rainfall likely to be 102% of LPA. It appears now that there is an open challenge and competition between Skymet and IMD, and various stakeholders are keenly watching this contest! While one would wish that Skymet’s forecast comes true so that farmers don’t suffer another year of distress, the government cannot take any chances and remain passive any more. In any case, the government will rely on its official agency IMD rather than any private forecaster. And its June forecast is taken very seriously due to its proximity to the monsoon season.

The international weather agencies, especially National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the US federal agency monitoring El Niño developments in the Pacific Ocean, declared the onset of El Niño, with a 90% chance of it continuing in the summer of 2015. This means that Pacific Ocean waters are likely to continue heating and thus will be disrupting the Indian monsoons in the year. Accuweather, another weather agency, says “while there will be some rainfall in the region (India), the pattern could evolve into significant drought and negatively impact agriculture from central India to much of Pakistan”. But this agency also recognises the positive role of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), warming of the Indian Ocean, which could counter the impact of El Niño provided IOD strengthens further, and India may yet get normal rainfall. IMD’s Australian counterpart, Bureau of Meteorology, is also predicting drier-than-normal weather conditions in the ensuing months.

So, overall, it seems a bout of tussle going on between El Niño (Pacific warming) and IOD (warming of Indian Ocean), and the net result will depend upon which emerges stronger. Skymet seems to be relying more on IOD, which currently is neutral to slight positive, and IMD leaning towards strengthening of El Niño. Needless to say, there are many other weather factors that go into the sophisticated modelling, but this in brief are the important factors for a layman to understand what is going on.

It would be interesting to see what is the historical relation between El Niño and droughts. Does every El Niño necessarily result into a drought? Our analysis of this relation over the last 35 years, since 1980, reveals that there have been 12 El Niño years and seven Indian droughts. Interestingly, six of these seven droughts were in El Niño years, while the 2014 drought happened in a non-El Niño year. This indicates a near-58% (7/12) probability of an El Niño year becoming a drought year for India, and a very high probability—88% (6/7)—of a drought year being an El Niño year. The El Niño years of 1994 and 1983 saw India receive excess rains, exceeding 12% of LPA. So, it is clear that all El Niño years don’t automatically get converted into a drought. A lot depends on the IOD and other factors, and a continuous watch on these is critical as monsoon season proceeds. That is why, given the levels of technology today, it is difficult to forecast well in advance for the whole season with high degree of accuracy.

Now, if 2015 does turn out to be a drought year, as is being forecast by IMD, then 2014 and 2015 will become the fourth pair of years since 1901 when India faced consecutive droughts—in the last 115 years, the country experienced consecutive droughts in 1904 and 1905, 1965 and 1966 and 1986 and 1987. This is a rare phenomenon, and the government will have to wake up to this event and become well-geared to face it. The government response so far has been that it is well prepared for any eventual drought. Only time will show how well-prepared the government is, when drought hits the country.

Unfortunately, farmers already have had it rocky last year—from deficient rains drying up crops in the kharif season to unseasonal rains and hailstorms in March-April destroying the ready crop. The 2015 drought will be the third hit in a row for the already-ailing farmer. Now, the economy may be growing at 7.3%, but if the agri sector, which employs close to half of the Indian population, limps at 0.2%  growth in FY 15, or probably even negative in 2015, then the sustainability of India’s growth story will be seriously undermined. “Growth for whom?” is the question that policy makers need to ponder on, and make corrections in their strategy by bringing agriculture higher up in their agenda. Else, they will pay a heavy political price. And nobody knows this better than the prime minister himself.

Saini is consultant and Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER

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