India's 2018 monsoon likely to be below average after poor start to season

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s monsoon rains, a crucial element for the country’s farm output, are likely to be below average in 2018, after the country experienced tepid rainfall during the first half of the season.

A man carrying an umbrella runs as he crosses a busy road during rain in Kolkata, India, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/File Photo

There is a 47 percent chance of India recording below average rainfall during the second half of the monsoon season which stretches between June to September, India’s weather office said in a statement on Friday.

For the first two months of the monsoon season, rainfall was below average, according to India Meteorological Department (IMD) data.

The monsoon rains could be considered the lifeblood of India’s $2 trillion economy since the farm sector contributes 14 percent of the country’s economic output and employs more than half of its 1.3 billion people.

A spell of good rains could keep a lid on inflation by holding down food prices, potentially tempting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring forward general elections due in May 2019.

Lower rainfall could add to the woes of those dependent on agriculture for a livelihood. Indian farmers, who have been hitting the streets to protest low income levels, are a crucial vote bank for a poll-bound Modi.

There is a 41 percent chance of India experiencing average rainfall, and 12 percent chance of above average rainfall during the second half of the monsoon season, the IMD said.

“The rainfall for the country as a whole during the second half of the season is likely to be 95 percent of the long-period average,” the IMD said.

Modi has set an ambitious target of doubling farmer’s income by 2022.

Farmers have planted summer crops on 73.8 million hectares (182.3 million acres) of land as of July 27, down 7.5 percent from a year ago, the Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare said.

India is the world’s biggest producer of cotton and pulses and the second-biggest producer of sugar and rice.

The IMD had forecast earlier that India in 2018 would receive rainfall measuring 97 percent of the long-term average.

The agency has accurately forecast the monsoon season only once in every five years in the last two decades, even after allowing for a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Eric Meijer and Christian Schmollinger