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Friday, October 2, 2009

India's Drought Is Worst Since 1972

India's meteorological department declared the country's four-month monsoon season had ended, leaving behind what it said was the country's worst drought in decades, with rains 23% below normal.

The drought could threaten India's otherwise robust economic growth. About half of India's 1.2 billion people depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

Sanjit Das for The Wall Street Journal

India's estimated 600 million farmers rely heavily on annual monsoon rains: 60% of its farmland is rain-fed, with the rest relying on irrigation.

Many economists forecast that gross domestic product will expand about 6% this year, but the weak monsoon already has sent food prices skyrocketing and is expected to stoke inflation.

"The monsoon this year has left the country with the worst drought since 1972," said Awadhesh Kumar, the forecasting officer at the Indian Meteorological Department in New Delhi.

Among the worst-affected regions were the major rice- and cereal-growing northern and western states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in August that the government had enough food stocks to handle the prolonged drought. But the drought is expected to have a severe impact on the rural poor, a focus of the current government, which was re-elected earlier this year on a platform of improving life for ordinary Indians.

"The government has failed to pull the poor out of the crisis," said Devinder Sharma, a food-policy analyst at the Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security based in New Delhi.

"The severe drought has pushed back the household economy of farmers in the rural areas by 10 years."

Mr. Sharma said India has 52 million tons of wheat and rice, enough to last for a year.

Others suggested that late-year rains could still avert a full-blown crisis if farmers are able to take advantage of it to plant late-year crops.

"The real challenge is for the government to encourage the farmers to plant more winter crops such as wheat and mustard, which will result in increased food grain production," said Deven Choksey, chief executive of K.R. Choksey, a Mumbai-based brokerage.

According to the Indian weather department, the impact of the drought has been mixed in different parts of the country.

Southern India recorded rains below 7% while the northwest reported a shortfall of 36%; in central regions the rains were 19% below normal.

Investors so far seem unperturbed by the poor monsoon and its possible impact on the economy. The benchmark Sensex index on the Bombay Stock Exchange has risen sharply in recent weeks.

Write to Vibhuti Agarwal at vibhuti.agarwal@wsj.com


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