Sep 24, 2012

Monsoon came in late but was in no hurry to leave.


In the midst of all the noise and din over the approval of FDI in multi-brand retail, comes the bad news. Despite the revival of monsoon in late Aug and September, the acreage under kharif sowings remains dismally short by 55.62 lakh hectares. While the area and production of paddy has not been severely impacted, it is coarse cereals, kharif pulses and oilseeds like groundnut which will record lower production. 

Some estimates point to a shortfall of about 15 million tonnes in foodgrain production, but there is no cause for alarm given the overflowing stocks of wheat and rice. 

Monsoon rains, which began late leaving Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh as the worst hit, appeared to be in no hurry to leave. Getting it all wrong this year, the Indian Meteorological Department is now finding it embarrassing to explain why southwest monsoon is not withdrawing as predicted. IMD had pointed to a dry September hoping the phenomenon of El Nino – which mostly brings in dry conditions in India – to become active in the tail-end of the rainy season. 

On the contrary, widespread rainfall lashed much of India in the week ending. What began as a dry season, with 42 per cent rainfall deficiency recorded in June, the country as a whole has received normal and above normal rainfall for most days of the first half of September. Of the 36 meteorological subdivisions, excess or normal rainfall has been recorded in 23 and deficient in the remaining 13 subdivisions. Accordingly, no region now falls in the category of scanty rainfall. 

Interestingly, most of the areas that were reportedly faced with a severe dry spell, and that comprised nearly 300 districts, have been slashed by continuous rains over the past two weeks. In some parts of the country, heavy and incessant rains have on the other hand created flood-like conditions, disrupting life and even forcing the State governments to launch evacuation measures. The erratic rainfall pattern has thrown up serious lessons, which we intend to forget after the monsoon season is over. 

Four States had officially declared drought – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan. In Gujarat, for instance, several parts of north, south and central state were hit by a drought. In addition to Kutch-Saurashtra and north Gujarat regions, neighbouring Union Territory of Diu, Daman and Dadra Nagar Haveli too was reeling under drought like conditions. Gujarat had demanded a drought-relief package of Rs 18,673.37 crore from the Centre. 

But in the second half of August and the first fortnight of September, most parts of the drought-affected regions were lashed with heavy rains as a result of which excess water from several reservoirs had to be released inundating in the process several villages and towns. Gujarat had to press in evacuation services. What is equally more intriguing is that while Kutch received the lowest rainfall in June-July, Surat district registered the highest rainfall in a decade. Such extreme variations exists in almost each of the states. 

In Madhya Pradesh, heavy rains not only disrupted life in several major cities but also ended drought in east and western parts. Rainfall now remains deficit in only four districts – Barwani, Umaria, Balaghat and Dindori. In Karnataka, where the Chief Minister had to order 12 legislators of the Estimates Committee travelling to Argentina to cut-short their visit in view of the public outcry at the time of the drought, recent rains have brought in some relief. 

I am not sure whether the Rs 17-crore puja programme evoked sympathy from the rain gods, but according to the Bangalore-based Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre moderate rainfall has been received in Chikmagalur, Davangere and Haveri districts, and light to heavy rains in Chikkaballapur, Gulbarga, Hassan, Chitradurga, Gadag, Belgaum, Kolar, Mandya, Bellary, Tumkur, Koppal, Ramnagar and Dharwad districts, while dry conditions prevailed in rest of the State. Karnataka had sought Rs 11,488.96 crore as drought relief. 

In Rajasthan, many days of heavy downpour has turned several parts of the State as flood-affected. Against a shortfall of 29.69 per cent till Aug 10, Rajasthan has now received 4.89 per cent above normal rainfall. It had to rope in Army in rescue and relief operations after 33 lives were lost. In Uttarakhand, which too reeled under drought in June, heavy rains have left 50 people dead, sparked landslides and flash floods, and brought in Army to evacuate 20,000 people to 60 relief camps.   

Let us be very clear that it is however too late to reverse the damage done to the ongoing kharif harvest. The absence of rainfall at the time of sowing has already left a soaring gap in the production potential. Late rains can help the standing crop but cannot bring in the remaining unsown area under foodgrains production. While it remains a fact that the country has failed to bring in effective measures for preparedness as well as mitigating drought, and has not been able to draw out a drought-proofing plan despite being faced with recurring dry spells, what worries me is the refusal to draw any immediate lessons from the monsoon drift – heavy rainfall in August and September. 

Call it erratic rainfall or the changing weather pattern, the fact remains that subsequent bouts of dry spell followed by heavy rains, often leading to floods in dry pockets, should be alarming enough. So far we have witnessed floods in one region while a sizable portion of the country goes dry, and at the same time there are some indications of monsoon beginning early in east India, but the new phenomenon of monsoon drift should be the focus of disaster preparedness. 

Farmers are more ingenious than planners. While the planners and policy makers will wait for screaming editorials before they take any notice, farmers have already moved to adaptive technologies. Take Punjab, for instance. Hit by a severe dry spell, Punjab farmers have shifted to late-sown and less water consuming basmati rice varieties. This year, one-fourth of the area under paddy has been brought under basmati rice.  

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