What started as a dismal monsoon has since gone from bad to worse. It reached the subcontinent a few days late and its progress northwards thereafter was anything but vigorous. By the end of June, large swathes of the country had received hardly any rain and the nationwide rainfall deficit soared to 29 per cent. Even at that stage, however, there was a chance that the monsoon could recover and turn into a “below normal” one, a category that the India Meteorological Department (IMD) defines as a season with nationwide rainfall between 90 per cent and 96 per cent of the long-term average. Indeed, the department’s probabilistic forecast issued in late June put the chances of the monsoon ending up in this category at twice the climatological probability (which is based on the outcome of past years). But, in addition, the rainfall record for over a century showed that the monsoon might slip below the 90 per cent mark and end up as a drought. In other words, at the end of June, the odds clearly favoured a monsoon with seasonal rainfall below 96 per cent, with the possibility of a drought. What, one wonders, compelled the IMD to declare in its updated June forecast that the monsoon was “most likely” to be in the “normal” category with rainfall between 96 per cent and 104 per cent?
Poor rains in July have made a recovery improbable and the IMD’s latest forecast shows that the monsoon will most likely end as a drought. Over half the country has still received too little rain. With a substantial part of the country’s agriculture dependent on those rains, the drought has taken a toll on kharif crops such as rice, coarse cereals, pulses and oilseeds. An immediate priority for governments both at the centre and in the States must be to protect livelihoods, especially in rural areas, and prevent food scarcity and soaring prices from taking hold. Fortunately, the government is holding stocks of tens of millions of tonnes of rice and wheat. Strangely, just last month, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the export of two million tonnes of wheat from its stocks on the grounds of inadequate storage space. Those buffer stocks will now come in handy and must be deployed judiciously. This will be the fourth drought in the space of 11 years and it will not be the last, particularly since the monsoon is in a low rainfall phase. Greater resilience must, therefore, become an integral part of planning for the future and coping with a changing climate. Water will have to be seen as a critical resource for the common good that must be carefully conserved and rationally used by all. It is not going to be easy to make those sorts of changes, but it must be done.