Mapping the not-so-normal monsoon

Vishal Dhiman

States where rainfall has been deficient make a difference to crop prospects

If you’re statistically inclined, you may be celebrating the fact that the south-west monsoon for 2017, which is now bowing out, has turned out to be normal for the second consecutive year. But farmers know that there can be many shades of grey to an officially ‘normal’ monsoon.

Another bumper year?

India has received a total 841.3 millimetres (mm) of rain in the south-west monsoon season from June 1 to September 30 this year.

IMD deems the season ‘normal’ if the all-India quantum of rain falls within a 10% range of its long-period average of 887.5 mm. The 2017 monsoon fell short of the number only by 5%. In fact, the cumulative rainfall numbers this year aren’t very different from 2016 when the country recorded 862 mm of rain. This may seem like good news. In 2016-17, India harvested a record crop of cereals (252.7 million tonnes) and managed a quantum jump in its output of both pulses (16.3 million tonnes in 2015 to 22.9 million tonnes in 2016) and oilseeds (25 to 32 million tonnes). This contributed to a significant bump-up in the agriculture leg of the GDP which grew 4.9% in FY17 compared with 0.7% in FY16.

But expecting an encore of that impressive performance just because this year’s monsoon has turned out ‘normal’, would be unrealistic. More than the quantum of rainfall that is dumped on the sub-continent during the four critical months, it is the spatial and temporal distribution of rains that make or break crop prospects. On this score, the 2017 monsoon has been quite whimsical.

Patchy distribution

For the purposes of measuring the spatial spread of rainfall, the IMD categorises India into 36 meteorological sub-divisions.

IMD’s wrap-up of the recent monsoon season tells us that in the just-concluded monsoon season, 5 of India’s 36 sub-divisions received excess rains, 25 received normal rains and 6 witnessed deficient rains. Last year, 4 sub-divisions were showered with excess rains, 23 were normal and 9 were deficient.

But the devil really lies in the details and the identity of the States that suffered deficient rains really matter to crop prospects. This year’s monsoon has played truant in some key food-bowl States. For instance, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab account for a lion’s share of kharif rice production. But this year’s monsoon has been 29% below normal in Uttar Pradesh and 22% short of normal in Punjab. West Bengal alone has enjoyed a near-normal season, as has much of the southern peninsula. Madhya Pradesh, which is a critical growing region for the rabi wheat crop, has seen a deficiency of 20%.

Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra are similarly critical for pulses output. Of these, while Rajasthan has received excess rains (8% above normal) and Maharashtra has been just about normal, rains playing truant in Madhya Pradesh look set to impact pulses output.

While excess rains in Gujarat (19% above normal) could augur well for the groundnut and cotton crops, the patchy show in both Madhya Pradesh and Haryana (26% below normal) cloud the prospects for oilseeds such as soyabean, rapeseed, mustard and sunflower. There have also been wide variations between growing regions within each state, which can have a bearing on crop prospects.

Weak ending

Month-wise rainfall patterns during the south-west monsoon also play a big role in deciding cropping area and yield. In 2016, the monsoon got off to a snail-paced start, but picked up pace in the latter half of the season.

But this year’s monsoon has behaved in exactly the opposite fashion. After excess rains of about 4% and 2% against normal seasonal patterns in June and July, the months of August and September have seen all-India rainfall fall 12-13% short of normal levels. Good rains in the months of June and July may have contributed to good sowing and coverage of the kharif crops. But deficit rains in August and September could impact the eventual output by pruning crop yields.

It is also important to note that rainfall in the last two months of the south-west monsoon dictate reservoir storage and soil moisture, both of which set the tone for the planting of the winter crops. Though there is much tracking and analysis of India’s south-west monsoon and the kharif crop, the rabi season has been equally important to the country’s agricultural prospects in recent years. Rabi output often matches or even exceeds the kharif output.

The rabi season accounts for the whole of India’s wheat and gram harvest, a fourth of the output for coarse cereals and chips in with over a third of the yearly harvest of urad and moong. Oilseeds such as rapeseed and mustard, sunflower and safflower are also predominantly winter crops. Therefore, dry spells in the latter half of this monsoon, taken with deficient rains in key rabi growing regions, can make for less than rosy rabi prospects.

All this could explain why the agriculture ministry, in its First Advance Estimates, has painted a somewhat muted picture of crop prospects for FY18. The estimates are based mainly on cropping and sowing patterns and a lot can change on yields and output, as the year progresses. But so far, it appears as if India will have a hard time living up to the 4.9% expansion in agriculture GVA that it so comfortably managed last year.

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