Whimsical monsoonOctober 1, 2021
As the South-West monsoon winds to a close, it is evident that it has charted a whimsical course breaking from historical patterns. After starting with a bang in June and deluging the country with 9.6 per cent above-normal rains, it went into an extended pause in the critical sowing months of July and August with the quantum of rains falling short of normal by 6.8 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. It now appears to be making up for this deficit by staying on late and dumping 29 per cent excess rains in September. As a result, while the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) headline forecast of a ‘normal’ monsoon for the season has come good with cumulative rainfall just 2 per cent short of Long-Period Average, its predictions on spatial and temporal spread have gone awry. IMD had said that the season would prove good for India’s agriculturally important ‘core monsoon zone’ with Central India likely to receive munificent rains, and North-West and Southern India getting normal rains. In reality, rains have been delayed and barely adequate in North-West and Central India, but better-than-usual in the South. The monsoon has also played truant in crucial sowing months and delivered excessive precipitation at harvest time. As this will have a divergent impact on crops, proactive policy interventions may be needed this year to balance remunerative realisations for farmers, and to keep a check on inflation.
As things stand, the Agriculture Ministry’s First Advance Estimates point to optimistic prospects for rice, pulses and sugarcane, with shrinkages expected for coarse cereals, cotton and oilseeds. Should the kharif pulses output rebound to 9.45 million tonnes as predicted, this would be good news for consumers as the output had slid from 9.58 million tonnes in FY17 to 8.69 million tonnes in FY21, leading to a resurgence in pulses inflation. But in the interests of ensuring remunerative prices for farmers, the Centre should stand ready to revisit its policy of unrestricted imports put in place in May. Centre and State machinery should be readied to mop up seasonal surpluses. Record rice production of 107 million tonnes is not exactly good news, as FCI coffers, recently replenished post-Covid, were already overflowing by September; PDS distribution should be stepped up sooner than later. The projected 419 million tonne sugarcane output would prolong problems of plenty for the sugar sector, unless the Centre ensures relief through serious implementation of ethanol blending. On oilseeds, the sub-par output of 23.3 million tonnes dashes any immediate hopes of cooling inflation or reducing import dependence. But to balance the interests of consumers with farmers planting their rabi crop, the Centre will need to refrain from knee-jerk tweaks to recent import policies.
The patchy monsoon heightens the probability of significant deviations from the first advance estimates for key crops as the year progresses. This requires both policymakers to retain flexibility to respond to the evolving situation.