Resource centre on India's rural distress

Monsoon: India's problem of plenty -Sayantan Bera

India’s weather office has forecast a normal monsoon. Bountiful rains in the June-to-September period are critical for about 800 million Indians who depend directly or indirectly on farming

New Delhi:
Gangabhishan Thaware, a 53-year-old farmer from the drought-prone Marathwada region of Maharashtra, took an unusual step in July last year.

Thaware and his fellow villagers had toiled on their fields and spent thousands of rupees on seeds and fertilizers, hopeful that rains will arrive as predicted by the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the government forecaster.

After waiting for more than a month for the rains to arrive and watching his investments dry up slowly on the fields for want of water, a frustrated Thaware went to the local police station.

There, he filed a complaint against the director of India Meteorological Department’s office at Pune, the person responsible for the monsoon forecast.

District police officials were at a loss.

“We spent so much based on the forecast, which turned out to be incorrect. We wanted Pune’s weather office to be locked and shut,” Thaware said in a phone interview from Anandgaon village in Beed district of Maharashtra.

Discontent among farmers is not confined to rural Maharashtra. A combination of weather-related shocks, depressed prices, indebtedness and inadequate attention to the plight of farmers have led to distress among farming communities across the nation, triggering protests at a time when Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces elections in as many as five states and national polls over the next 12 months.

While the monsoon was overall near normal last year, more than one-third of India received either below normal or excess rains, leading to acute distress and loss of crops such as soybean and pulses, and pest attacks on cotton driven by dry weather. But India’s aggregate food production touched a record high, setting in motion a deeper crisis: an unprecedented collapse in crop prices. Another year of record harvest could, in fact, further depress crop prices.

On 14 April this year, IMD forecast a normal monsoon for 2018 at 97% of the 50-year average. If the forecast holds true, India will witness the third successive year of normal rains, after consecutive years of drought in 2014 and 2015.

“Normal monsoons in past years delivered a good harvest, but not decent income to farmers… barring wheat, there is not a single crop where farmers have sold their produce above government-announced support prices,” said Yogendra Yadav, a politician and member of Jai Kisan Andolan, a farmers’ body.

A normal monsoon this year, if distributed evenly across states and over the June-to-September period, is expected to provide a shot-in-the-arm for the rural economy by raising crop production, improving rural wages and farm incomes. It is also likely to boost sales of farm inputs, consumer products, tractors, motorcycles and small cars.

“There is a strong correlation between, say, tractor sales and rainfall. However, maintaining the growth seen in the previous two years may be difficult, and growth may taper off,” said Dharmakirti Joshi, chief economist at ratings agency Crisil Ltd. “If the government acts on its promise of providing better crop prices to farmers—and that is likely in an election year—there will be a positive spillover for the FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) sector.”

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