Waiting for the Skies to Open Up

As the mercury touched one hundred degrees, India began its monsoon watch. Scorched people sought respite in the seasonal rains that cools down the earth and provides an economic stimulus, without which much of India's growth would remain stunted. The whole of last week, the monsoon story dominated the front pages of the newspapers and the airwaves of the television news channels. And the message from all that weather watch is grim. This year the Monsoons are expected to bring less rain than previous years. The government braced for its impact on agricultural productivity and the overall economy.

At a press conference held in New Delhi yesterday, the country's science and technology minister told the media that monsoon this year 93 per cent of the normal rainfall of 89 cm during the season. It was also predicted that India's granary states of the Punjab and Haryana would get even less rainfall - about 81 per cent of the long term average for the region.

This has direct impact on the hydroelectric power generation of the country and of course, on irrigation. The levels of water are close to distress levels in the vast water reservoirs that fuels both the crucial elements agricultural activity. Electrical power hungry India is facing massive outages causing ferment not just in urban India but also in the rural outbacks.

Monsoon is so important for India because about 60 per cent of the total cultivable area of the country of 140 million hectares is rain-fed. And though agriculture accounts for only 20 per cent of the total gross domestic product, it still supports 60 per cent of the population. When monsoon fails, it causes severe hardship to a vast population of people. Already, government officials are trying to talk down the economic impact of an adverse monsoon forecast so that the prices of essential commodities do not spiral out of control.

Low monsoons also cause a negative economic cycle by lowering profitability in all sectors. Lesser amount of rains could cause low agricultural growth, causing a spurt in prices of food grains dampening rural demand leading to a deleterious effect on corporate profitability and financial sector sentiments. This in turn has a toxic effect on the economy.

So what is this monsoon that can potentially cause this havoc to Indian socio-economy at such a big scale? It is a weather front caused by the high summers in the Indian sub-continent. As the air over land heats up and moves upwards, it is replaced by cool, moisture-laden breeze from the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Seas. That brings rain to the parched lands -- the period for the weather front being June-September. Almost 90 per cent of all the rains the country gets pours in during the monsoon season. This huge natural replenishment of depleted water resources renews the ecological life cycle of the tropical country.

The Arabs called it Mausim, the Portuguese Moncao. Finally, the English coined the word Monsoon. The direction of monsoon winds is south-westerly. Monsoons are also prevalent in north America originating in Mexico and flowing through south-western United States. Though not as intense as the Indian monsoon, north American monsoon crop up due to the heating of air over Mexico, to be replaced by cool ocean air.

This shows that Indian monsoon is not an isolated happenstance. In fact, as the Indian newspapers highlighted this week the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) of the United Nations announcement that there is 50 per cent El Nino possible this year. El Nino occurs due to the heating of water of the Pacific Ocean beyond normal, slowing the passage of trade winds from Latin America to Southeast and South Asia. The impact of El Nino over the monsoon wind is felt when the large mass of hot air over the Pacific, moving eastwards sap the moisture of the Monsoon winds. Discovery of this monsoon winds had helped shorten the voyages to India from Europe in the early part of the first century AD.

It remains to be seen whether this year the monsoon would play truant, thus causing problems for the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government in New Delhi. If it does slow down the Indian economy, it would have an impact on the global economy too because the growth of the Chinese and the Indian economy is fueling the growth of world economy today. A simple weather front could hence topple the applecart of many.