Monsoon rains are now covering most of India’s traditional grain belt in the Ganges River Basin, nearly two weeks later than usual. The rains bring much-needed relief to farmers and politicians, who feared the effects of a late monsoon on crops like corn, sugar and rice. In fact, New Delhi’s intense focus on the monsoon’s course this year shows just how central the seasonal rains remain to life in India. Thanks to modern irrigation technologies, shifts in the timing of the monsoon no longer mean famine, but they do affect the Indian government's bottom line.
The South Asian monsoon is a system of winds that reverse direction at roughly the same time every year. As they move up and down the Indian subcontinent, these winds carry fresh water to hundreds of millions of farmers. Consequently, the usually highly predictable monsoon rains are the lifeblood of agriculture throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The monsoon has two phases. The first carries moisture from the Arabian Sea up through the Indian subcontinent. It begins in June and covers most of India with rain until September. In late September, these winds reach the Himalayas and make an abrupt about-face. From late October to December, the monsoon glides back down over the subcontinent on its way to the Indian Ocean.
Agriculture accounts for 18 percent of India’s growth domestic product (GDP) and employs around half of its total workforce. The monsoon rains are the main source of water for 55 percent of the country’s arable land. This means the rains are crucial — not only for India’s farmers, but for its economy as a whole.
Now, that’s a good thing when the monsoon arrives on time and brings the right amount of rain. But when it’s late or weak, it leads to drought. When it’s too strong, it can trigger floods. The two-phase pattern of the winds defines Indian agriculture, so when the pattern shifts even slightly, it can have real implications for food production.
In the past, seasonal fluctuation was a matter of life or death for Indian farmers. A bad year meant widespread famine. Today, the situation is somewhat different. Most parts of India now have irrigation systems that farmers can turn to in an emergency, so even when rains are late or weak (as they have been this year), farmers have ways to supplement them.
But complications come along with that. First, farmers need a way to power those irrigation systems. That way is diesel. Diesel accounts for more than 40 percent of India’s oil demand, and farmers are the number one consumers. Farmers are also a key voting bloc. New Delhi therefore has a real interest in making sure they don’t feel too much pressure.
This puts a heavy burden on the country’s budget. India imports 70 percent of the crude oil it uses — a huge driver of the country's trade deficit. On top of this, the government spends $16 billion a year to subsidize oil products, most of which goes to diesel for farmers. Politically, it's hard for the government to lift these subsidies, even though doing so would help whittle its growing fiscal deficit. This year’s late monsoon only adds to the problem by increasing farmers' dependence on diesel.
Anxiety over delayed rains is nothing new. This anxiety is like the rains themselves: a staple of Indian life. The monsoon isn’t just the key climatic or agricultural event in the Indian subcontinent — it’s the key economic event. Its effects reach far beyond agricultural output, shaping political dynamics on both the regional and national levels.