x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Relief in India as monsoon arrives on time

The monsoon rains, vital for India's farmers to grow the food to feed the country's vast population, look like being almost normal this year, spelling good news for food prices.

Vehicles and pedestrians find their way through a waterlogged street as this year's monsoons arrive in Mumbai, India. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo
Vehicles and pedestrians find their way through a waterlogged street as this year's monsoons arrive in Mumbai, India. Rajanish Kakade / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // One of India's most anticipated events, the monsoon, has arrived.

A proper start to the key summer rains is vital to the Indian way of life. The rains will dictate the price of vegetables and grains for Indians, who have, due to delayed and inadequate rains, seen food prices reach a record high in the past two years.

"Everything is running according to clockwork," said Jatin Singh, the chief executive officer of Skymet, a private weather forecasting company based in New Delhi.

The monsoon season in India lasts from June to September, reaching its full extent in July. Starting in the south, it moves up the subcontinent, delivering more than 100cm of rainfall in three months.

This week, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) released its yearly forecast for rain. It predicted a near-normal rainfall, which would allow millions of Indian farmers to start planning and planting their crops on time, in order to meet harvest deadlines in autumn. The meteorological department said that there was unlikely to be a repetition of the low rainfall of the 2009 monsoon, the lowest in 37 years.

More than 40 per cent of land is irrigated in India, supporting 60 per cent of its 1.1 billion population. Crop staples include wheat and rice, along with corn, legumes, oilseeds, spices, sugarcane, jute and cotton.

A Mohan Kumar, professor at the department of atmospheric sciences at the Cochin University of Science and Technology, calling this year's conditions "favourable", said he expects food prices will be stabilised this year.

"This duration is very critical," he said. "The entire system depends on the timely onset of the monsoon. From cultivation to hydroelectric projects, the monsoon runs India."

The monsoon also dictates the price of hydroelectric power in the country. With the right amount of rainfall, the price is expected to stabilise, said Mr Singh.

Mr Singh said: "If the IMD's forecast is right, then 98 per cent of the rains will be normal. Our hunch is that the suffering that power plants and the electricity markethave seen for the past year or so will come to an end. Prices will remain low in general."

To the relief of farmers, meteorologists, market analysts, businessmen and housewives alike, the seasonal winds blowing from the south-west made landfall on time this year, with rains lashing the coast of the southern Indian state of Kerala two days ahead of schedule, on May 29.

Since then, the rains have crept up the western Indian coast, flooding cities such as Mumbai as well as bringing respite from the summer heat.

So far the rains have covered the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. They arrived in Mumbai by June 5 and the rest of the country, except the east, is expected to get wet weather by July 1.

But analysts worry that while some parts of India, including the north, west and south, are receiving the right amounts of showers, the east will not. The winds and currents that cause cyclones in the Bay of Bengal are also responsible for creating the right conditions for precipitation. But this year, a week-long delay in the rains in the eastern part of India could affect rice production.

West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and eastern regions of Uttar Pradesh make up much of the rice-growing belt in India.

"In this economy, there is an overwhelming reliance on rice," said Mr Singh, who estimated that any shortfall from the eastern belt will be made up by the rest of the country's rice cultivation in the west and south.

The golden standard, or "bumper crop" is estimated at 80 million quintals a year. In 2009, during the worst recorded rainfall, India fell short by 23 per cent of its target. It banned exports and kept the ban in place last year as the market struggled to recover. This year, the harvests are expected to meet demand.

But government storage and warehousing facilities may be unable to cope with the output. Every year, in spite of the rains, millions of bags of grains go to waste as they rot in unsuitable storage conditions, often left outdoors because of a lack of space. Last year, contractors rented private warehouses to store excess bags of wheat. This year's rice production, estimated to exceed expectations, faces the same challenge. "The procurement of rice will be less because of storage," said Mr Singh said. "This gives rise to private opportunities to come in and contract it out because the government has its hands full."