The pre-monsoon rains are now starting to show in parts of South India. In the last 24 hours we have seen some very large rainfall totals in Cochin (92mm) and Vijayawada (142mm).
The monsoon is vitally important to the region. Whilst deaths from flooding often grab the headlines, the monsoon rains are a life-giver for millions. Without them, India’s agriculture would not be what it is: the biggest source of employment in the country.
The agricultural sector of the Indian economy is a vast industry, responsible for 15 percent of the country’s economic output. India is the second biggest producer in the world for rice, wheat, sugar and cotton and some 60 percent of the country’s vast population is dependent upon it for employment.
So the news that the monsoon of 2012 is expected to be about average, has been greeted with great relief. The Earth Science minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, was quoted as saying, “This year’s monsoon as a whole is most likely to be normal which largely means normal farm production.”
The prediction is largely based on the decline of the current La Nina weather pattern, with neutral conditions expected to prevail until a weak El Nino sets in during August. By then, it is hoped that most of the crops will have been sown.
A ‘normal’ monsoon is defined as rainfall between 96 and 104 percent of a 50 year average of 890mm across the four month season.
There are strict criteria applied by the Indian Meteorological Service which determine whether a monsoon has begun.
Firstly, after 10 May, 60 percent of a clutch of 14 observing stations must have recorded two consecutive days of at least 2.5mm of rain.
Secondly, high-level westerly winds must be maintained in a specific region of the southern Indian Ocean.
Thirdly, outgoing long-wave radiation in the same area must be below a certain threshold.
Those criteria are usually met around 1 June. The arrival of the monsoon rains in South India sees rains reaching the tea, coffee and rubber plantations. They then spread to rice-growing areas in the east, before entering the oilseed producing areas across central India in the third week of June. By July, the cotton-growing areas of the Punjab should experience the rains for the first time.
A good harvest is needed to combat consumer food price inflation, currently running at over eight percent. It would also provide a fillip to an economy which has felt the effects of the recent global economic downturn.
Even a bumper crop may not be enough to rein in price rises. A burgeoning middle class has seen an increased demand in recent years for protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs and poultry, along with fruit and vegetables.
Drought in 2009, the worst since 1972, forced India to become a net importer of sugar. This drove global sugar prices to record highs and fuelled food inflation.
India’s growing and ever-more affluent population will continue to increase the demand for food. Climate change is expected to make monsoon rains more variable and unpredictable. This will make the challenges facing the country’s agriculture industry of huge importance in the years ahead.