Forget Bollywood’s classic songs, the most welcome sound in India is the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rains. If all goes well, oppressive heat gives way to thunderous downpours around early June, unleashing the annual season of rejuvenation that delivers 80 percent of India’s rainfall in four frantic months. Yet monsoons are erratic, perhaps increasingly so because of climate change. And when they disappoint, food prices soar, the poor go hungry, reservoirs empty and power cuts hamstring businesses. The impact even ripples overseas as commodity markets are starved of Indian sugar and rice. About 800 million of the country’s 1.3 billion people count on agriculture for a living, yet less than half of its farmland has access to irrigation. That underlines the dependence on India’s fickle four-month deluge and raises the question: What more should be done to accommodate the vagaries of the monsoon?

The Situation

After three of the past four monsoons fell short, plunging parts of the nation into severe drought, the outlook for 2018 is better. Early forecasts call for rainfall close to the 50-year average. That would be a relief after recent disappointments: The 2015 monsoon was the driest in six years because of El Nino and followed a poor monsoon in 2014, leaving major cities such as Mumbai rationing water supplies. There was some respite in 2016, when overall rainfall fell into the definition of what’s termed normal — within 4 percent of the 50-year average. However, the 2017 rainy season delivered just 95 percent of that average, with almost one-fifth of the country receiving insufficient rainfall and some reservoirs in the south drained to about half-capacity. Poor monsoons delay planting and produce smaller yields of crops such as rice, corn, sugar cane and oilseeds. That can accelerate food inflation, a key focus for a central bank seeking to lower interest rates and a disaster for the millions of Indians mired in poverty. It got so bad that in 2016 Prime Minister Narendra Modi refocused government policies on agriculture, fast-tracking irrigation projects and extending record lending to farmers. 

The Background

Monsoon derives from the Arabic word ``mausim’’ meaning season and refers to a seasonal reversal of winds. The unrivaled scale of India’s monsoon is explained by its unique geography: a vast, upside-down triangle of land with ocean on two sides and topped by the world’s tallest mountain range. The crucial summer monsoon begins when hot, dry air trapped over the northern plains by the Himalayas starts drawing in moist, low-pressure fronts from the Indian Ocean. Delays of just days can ruin harvests, so rituals have emerged to implore the rains, from frog and donkey weddings to mud baths and prayers to the rain god Indra. A typical monsoon delivers 89 centimeters (35 inches) of rain — 50 percent more than London gets in a year — and severe flooding happens at least once every five years. In neighboring Bangladesh, it’s an annual occurrence.

“While, like last year, I seek the blessings of Lord Indra to bestow on us timely and bountiful monsoons, I would pray to Goddess Lakshmi as well. I think it is a good strategy to diversify one’s risks.” — Pranab Mukherjee in his 2011 budget speech as finance minister

The Argument

India has maintained a goal to be self-sufficient in food while reducing the economy’s dependence on agriculture to 15 percent of GDP from about half in the 1950s. Cutting its dependence on the monsoon is another matter; constructing new dams faces political hurdles, so Modi is targeting multiple smaller-scale water projects including irrigation ponds and has proposed interlinking rivers to redirect resources to parched areas. Critics say groundwater levels will continue to fall dangerously and droughts will persist unless the agriculture sector, which accounts for 80 percent of water consumption, starts using water more efficiently. Genetically modified plants suited to droughts might help, as would selecting more appropriate crops than thirsty rice and sugar cane in water-scarce regions. That choice is often a matter of politics rather than common sense, detractors say. Climate change is expected to boost monsoon rainfall, but will also bring more extreme events that exacerbate flooding and drought. With India on course to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, many see water scarcity as a potential regional flashpoint. Tackling India’s chronic air pollution may be among the most effective policies. Particles in the atmosphere hold moisture for longer, which some scientists say could be contributing to a gradual long-term weakening of the monsoon.

First published April

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