A daily bulletin of news & opinion

19 April 2010

From the baking plains of the Deccan Plateau to the boardrooms of Mumbai, everyone is keeping a weather eye on India’s skies as the annual monsoon approaches.

The Indian Meteorological Department is still a week or so away from handing out its formal forecast for this year’s monsoon but private weather forecasters are already doing a brisk trade as Indian firms try to get a head-start on post-monsoon planning.

The rains that inundate India from June to September are crucial to the country’s economy. With only about 40 per cent of farmland irrigated and more than half the country engaged in agriculture of some kind, good or bad rains affect incomes – and spending – across the economy.

“Monsoon is very critical to an economy like India,” says economist Siddharth Shankar. “No country can progress in the long run if its people are hungry or if the food is expensive and beyond their reach. Industry too cannot survive without demand, and final demand for an economy like India comes from the rural sector.”

Which is why everyone – from wheat farmers, to industrial conglomerates and motorcycle manufacturers – wants to glean any nugget of information they can about how the monsoon might pan out this year.

Jackson Jolly, who heads the Indian operation of private weather forecasting company CustomWeather, says the firm is seeing increased interest from Indian firms who want a heads-up on this year’s monsoon.

“We do see that there is a demand for weather data in India and this keeps moving up each year. Agriculture, marine, insurance are showing more interest in forecast data. We do feel that energy and utilities will have greater demand for weather data in India in coming days,” says Jolly.

Last year the monsoon rains were more than 20 per cent below average, the worst in 37 years. While the federal government helped mitigate the worst effects with stimulus packages in rural areas, it still had to contemplate the unthinkable act of importing rice.

In any case, the economy is still suffering the after effects of the poor rains, with food prices rocketing over the year and feeding into general inflation, which is almost touching 10 per cent.

While the rains are a blessing for the country’s agriculture, they can also be a curse as monsoon-induced flash flooding wipes away crops and cripples cities. The country’s financial capital of Mumbai was thrown into chaos in July 2005 when nearly a metre of rain fell in a single day. As a result, insurance companies also want a look at the likelihood of an extreme monsoon.

“We are in talks with a few insurance companies… for long-range forecasting for the monsoon. Such data should help them in meeting disasters such as flash floods due to heavy rains, land slides, etcetera,” says Jolly.

The good news is that the rains this year look like being on target, with the country’s agriculture secretary recently saying the government is “99 per cent” sure the rains won’t fail.


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