August 13, 2020
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A Hope-Drenched Summer

An early monsoon gladdens hearts. But will it sustain long enough to beat the drought spectre?

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A Hope-Drenched Summer
A Hope-Drenched Summer
Luck's not just rained, it's poured. And the question uppermost in everybody's mind is will India break its three-year jinx with drought? The early onset of southwest monsoons—the annual phenomenon delivers 80 per cent of the country's total rainfall—preceded by good pre-monsoon showers all over the country has happily startled people awaiting a long and scorching summer.

To be sure, the early onset of rains is a trifle unusual. Meteorologists admit to a certain degree of unpredictability about this year's monsoon and the factors which have added to its vigour. For one, the blazing heat that usually scorches large swathes of north and central India in May and June was mostly subdued. As a result, the mercury, that normally soars to 45 degrees celsius in places like Delhi, Haryana and Punjab and even higher in Rajasthan and Gujarat, remained well below its average value during the peak summer season. Delhi best exemplified this variation from the normal: the city's average maximum temperature in May was a bearable 35.2 degrees celsius. More strikingly, no heat-waves were reported in the country. Also, almost all regions experienced a good amount of rainfall. Unlike the routine pre-monsoon thundershowers which are sporadic and unevenly scattered, the rainfall in the month of May was regular and well distributed.

Various theories are being propounded to explain this year's rather unusually pleasant summer. Most of them point to last month's cyclone in the Arabian Sea off the Gujarat coast as the lucky trigger for 'bonus' rainfall all over the country. Meteorologists are holding forth on how the swirling disturbance, that took a northwestward detour while approaching Gujarat, led to the unexpected rainfall in May. Explains S.C. Gupta, director, India Meteorological Department (imd): "The cyclone that originated in the Arabian Sea off Gujarat's coast in the second half of May, acted as a catalyst and set the weather systems in motion. It not only lowered temperatures but also resulted in good rainfall. So, the cyclone weather system, that persisted for almost two weeks, followed by easterly winds from the Bay of Bengal and south-westerly winds, together led to a sustained cooler weather and also brought about rains."

The pleasant summer and the early arrival of monsoon is also being attributed to global warming in some quarters. But this premise finds few takers among experts. "I don't agree global warming could have had this perceptible impact on the monsoons. There is no denying that average temperatures are rising globally but this cannot be ascribed to every region. There are regions that also show a decline in temperature. In the present situation and with available methods of calculations, the global phenomenon cannot be discerned in a relatively small regional occurrence like the southwest monsoon," says G.B. Pant, director, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune.

U.S. De, additional director general of meteorology at imd's Central Weather Observatory in Pune, adds: "A general statement is being made that the frequency of droughts and floods will be higher. However, regional uncertainties are still prevailing. The model calculations cannot tell conclusively about the impact of global warming on regional phenomena. It is not possible to establish any such correlation at this stage."

With recurring droughts in the background, the stakes for this monsoon are really high. For states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, that are reeling under the third successive year of severe drought, any further deterioration in their condition would push them into the abyss of 'agriculture drought'—the last and most calamitous stage of drought. This is manifested in a perilous shrinkage of crop area and poor vegetative growth, eventually resulting in famine. The ministry of agriculture has already sounded the warning bells by officially declaring that last year's kharif and rabi production had been affected on account of deficient rainfall in the affected states. The crop in these states is estimated to have been lower by about a whopping 15.7 million tonnes.

The problem is not confined to crops alone. The total live storage in mid-June in all the 70 major reservoirs in different parts of country collectively stood at a precarious 18.77 tmc (thousand million cubic metre) against 27.28 tmc for the corresponding period last year. According to the Central Water Commission, the total storage position has fallen to its lowest level in the past one decade. Out of the country's 70 reservoirs, an alarming 58 have their reserves depleted to less than 30 per cent of their capacity. This problem is further compounded by the depleting levels of groundwater table in drought-affected states. The Central Groundwater Board says that in a number of districts the water level is depleting at the rate of over 20 cm per year. There are eight such districts in Chhattisgarh, 13 in Gujarat, 30 in Madhya Pradesh, 18 in Orissa and 15 in Rajasthan.

The monsoon's promising start has raised hopes and there's optimism that we'll tide over the crisis. Says Pant: "The monsoon has been definitely good so far. The additional rains in the month of May have certainly worked as a bonus for the country. It has been raining in Rajasthan, Gujarat and up to the southern Himalayas. This will definitely provide relief to areas reeling under severe drought-like conditions."

The assessment by the Natural Disaster Management cell, set up under the ministry of agriculture, mirrors these sentiments as it hopes for an end to the prolonged spell of drought. Its prediction, phrased in cautious bureaucratese, reads: "The weather scenario can be said to indicate high likelihood of gradual easing of distress from July 2001 onwards."

The National Crop Forecasting Centre has also reported positive trends. "The widespread rains in May have resulted in a good start for the kharif crop. Land preparation and tillage operations have started for the crops wherever rain has been received," says its latest assessment report. The difference as compared to last year is clearly visible. Consider the case of kharif rice. The normal area under kharif rice is about 218 lakh hectares, of which about 31 lakh hectares is under early kharif (autumn rice). As per the latest reports available from states, the area covered under sowing so far is about 8.19 lakh hectares, which is 9,000 hectares more than the area covered last year for the corresponding period. Similarly, sowing of cotton, the second major crop after rice, has risen to 13.15 lakh hectares, up from 12.93 lakh hectares last year.

Buoyed by the facts, the imd has predicted a 13th successive normal monsoon for the country this year. During the previous two years, too, Mausam Bhavan had predicted normal rainfall. However, despite the department's claim that its forecast turned out to be mathematically correct, the ground situation was rather different. "The success of monsoon cannot be measured in terms of total collective rainfall. The distribution of monsoon has to be even and regular over a period of time. Floods in one region and drought in others may add up to present a normal average picture, but this does not reflect the ground reality," says a senior agriculture ministry official.

However, so far the weather department has reasons to rejoice as the pre-monsoon and monsoon rains have been more or less well distributed all across the country. "Except for Tamil Nadu, which normally doesn't receive much rainfall during this season, all parts of the country have reported good rains," says an imd official.

This is also reflected in the seasonal monsoon report. Between June 1 and June 20, the cumulative rainfall was normal to excess in 79 per cent of the country's districts—this comprised 30 out of the 35 meteorological subdivisions. For the same period last year, only 19 met subdivisions reported excess rainfall whereas this year 25 subdivisions have received excess rainfall when compared to their normal averages.

Clearly, the monsoon has had an early and good start this year. The scene appears good both for crops and the parched regions. However, much will depend on how India's annual rain provider sustains its intensity over the next three crucial months and bails the nation out of its drought jinx.
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