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Monsoons predictions: burdening the farmer

Monsoons predictions: burdening the farmer

      Monsoon is very critical for agriculture, and other livelihoods. Ofcourse, rains are important for every form of life, as water nurtures nature. It is said the impact would be on 1.7 billion people in Indian sub-continent. Based on monsoon predictions, a number of people and professionals become active. One is not sure how many farmers would depend on monsoon predictions of Indian Meteorology department. There are some traditional methods and knowledge systems, on which farmers depend. They look at indicators in nature, such as flowering of mango and tamarind trees, wind directions, summer temperatures, etc.. With devegetation, deforestation, and species loss (frogs, etc.), and also the hurdles in passage of traditional wisdom from generation to generation, farmers do not seem to have any choice but to rely on newspaper reports and television channels, which report predictions from the IMD.

     Not only farmers, forward trading, commodity exchanges, market pundits and agriculture companies also monitor monsoon predictions. Forward contracts, of various commodities, are also based on monsoon. Huge amounts of investments are made based on monsoon forecasts. Indian agriculture is slowly being driven by the prices arrived in forward trading, even though not many realize this. Additionally, with more integration with international commodity markets, prices and investments are also dependent on monsoon. One can imagine the quantum of investment and confidence on monsoon forecasts. Ofcourse, small and marginal farmers may be oblivious to all this information. However, they would be affected by the atmosphere, wherein media plays an important role.

       From March to May, IMD has been predicting normal rainfall. Normal indices of starting in Kerala and progress from thereon have all been tracked and reported. Based on this, farmers prepared their lands, purchased seeds and started sowing. Not all are dependent on monsoons, if they have a borewell, to draw out underground water. Yet, a significant majority is dependent on rainfed agriculture. Cotton is now a major crop in such areas. Last year, it was sown in 45.19 lakh hectares. This year, because of prices, a 20 percent increase in the acreage was expected. If one can take 54 lakh hectares and a lower-side average expenditure of Rs.5,000 per hectare, Rs.2700 crores is the investment done, on the basis of a normal monsoon prediction. This year, prices of all these inputs shot up enormously.

      If the monsoon picks up later, cotton farmers have to re-invest atleast Rs.2700 crores. Significant percent of this investment goes to seed, fertilizers and petroleum companies (diesel and petrol), and also their distribution and marketing networks. Their risk, debt and interest burden would double. Farmers, already indebted, are likely to take the extreme step of committing suicides. A few cases are already reported.

     Since huge investments are based on IMD forecasts, one would wonder how accurate are these forecasts. It is being said that since 2007, IMD's prediction for southwest monsoon has been fairly accurate, except for 2009.  The monsoon 2009 was predicted to be a normal monsoon by most climate models, weeks before the beginning of the monsoon season. As it turned out, the 2009 monsoon season started at the southern tip of India about a week earlier, but later the monsoon progress stalled and resulted in a massive deficit for June 2009. On 19th April 2011, India Meteorological Department (IMD) has projected a normal monsoon for this year (within 96-104% of long period average (LPA) rainfall over India as whole which is about 89cm) with a very low probability for seasonal rainfall to be below 90% or above 110% of LPA. We now know it is not normal.

     This brings us to the methods of forecasting and the information sources. Whenever ISRO sends a rocket or satellite, press releases give us a list of benefits from such expenditures. Usually, we are told the monsoon forecast would become more accurate. However, one can see that accuracy is wavering. Climate change can be a usual culprit to be blamed. Yet, it is clear that this public expenditure is not helping the farmers and Indian populace. Spectrum allocations, contracts, etc. are done in a 'cloud of uncertainty' as the Prime Minister wants us to believe. Maybe, the entire network of research and forecasting infrastructure is also affected by such uncertainty. It may not be the job of CAG to unravel the background of all uncertainties. But, predictably, there are gains for a few from such uncertainties and bad forecasts. A farmer's comment, recently, is worth remembering. He said one is not sure if some company has 'invested' to get forecasts of normal rains. They will gain doubly, with repeat investments by farmers. It might appear cynical or far-fetched, but who knows. Present circumstances suggest it as a possibility.

Farmers may have to depend on traditional wisdom and knowledge to assess the monsoon arrivals.


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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.