India is likely to experience below-average monsoon rainfall in 2014, the government's weather office said on Thursday, if the El Nino weather pattern affects the four-month-long rainy season.
The monsoon is vital for India as half of its farmland lacks irrigation. To cut dependence on rains, India plans to expand its farmland under irrigation by at least a tenth by 2017.
Agriculture accounts for 14 percent of Asia's third-largest economy but employs more than half of the workforce. Healthy harvests can help keep a lid on food price inflation, which has been stuck at around 9 percent.
Rainfall is expected to be 95 percent of the long-term average, with a margin for error of plus or minus 5 percent, during the June-to-September season, the weather office said in a statement.
The Meteorological Department defines average, or normal, rainfall as between 96 percent and 104 percent of a 50-year average of 89 cm for the entire season.
The first official monsoon forecast is in line with the latest outlook of the Geneva-based World Meteorological Organisation's (WMO) forum that predicted mostly below-average rains in much of South Asia including India.
"El Nino condition continues to be neutral in the pacific but the probability of its occurrence is on the higher side; about 60 percent," said a weather office official.
The last time India faced a drought with rainfall below the normal range was in 2009 and prior to that, in 2004 and 2002 - with El Nino hitting the Indian monsoon season on each occasion.
A strong El Nino, marked by a warming of the sea surface on the Pacific Ocean, can cause severe drought in Australia, Southeast Asia and India, while drenching other parts of the world such as the U.S. Midwest and Brazil with rain.
In 2013, the Indian monsoon posted 106 percent rains, qualifying as an above average year for rainfall, resulting in record grains production at 262 million tonnes for the 2013/14 crop from July.
India will update its forecast in June, after the southwest monsoon has typically engulfed half of the country.
Experts say no pressing panic button, yet
(PTI) With IMD forecasting below normal monsoon this year because of a possible El Nino factor, agriculture experts today advised the government not to press the panic button yet.
"We need to be on alert and be prepared but not get panic because the country had escaped El Nino without any scratch way back in 1997," former chief of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices Ashok Gulati told PTI.
"The monsoon seasonal rainfall is likely to be 95 per cent of the Long Period average with an error of plus or minus 5 percent," Indian Meteorological Department said in a statement.
Officials in the weather department said the monsoon is expected to be below normal because of the El-Nino effect.
Gulati, who is now chair-professor at think-tank ICRIER, said below normal rain does not mean there will be drought. "We have to see how would be the distribution of rain across the country."
El Nino refers to the warmer-than-average sea surface temperature in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. This condition occurs every 4-12 years and had last impacted India's monsoon in 2009, leading to the worst drought in almost four decades.
Crisil Chief Economist D K Joshi said: "No doubt, the IMD forecast is not encouraging, but I won't press the panic button now as there is higher probability of normal monsoon."
"Below normal monsoon is not a drought year. What matter is how well rainfall is distributed across the country. We need to be concerned and be prepared so that we are not taken by surprise," he added.
The four-month long long monsoon starting June is crucial for kharif crops such as rice, soyabean, cotton and maize because almost 60 per cent of the farm land in the country is rainfed.
Gulati said as per the Skymet forecast, rainfall in the country's north west and western regions would be hit badly if El Nino occurs.
"If it (El Nino) affects rain in the western region, oilseeds, cotton, pulses and onion crops would be affected. The north-west region may not face much problem as it is irrigated," he added.
Harish Galipelli, Head of Commodities and Currencies with JRG Wealth Management said if the rainfall spread is scattered then it will have impact on agriculture yields and production, thereby prices.
Australian Bureau of Meteorology and private forecaster Skymet have also predicted a likelihood of El Nino factor hitting monsoon in India.