At least a quarter of India is drought-hit, admits Pranab

The monsoon situation is looking grimmer by the day, with finance minister Pranab Mukherjee acknowledging on Tuesday that more than a fourth of India's 600 districts are drought-affected, with rains in central India, which has largely switched from traditional crops to soybean, being the worst hit.

The government's latest calculations say the rainfall deficit in the soybean-growing region of central India has to 20 per cent, while rainfall deficiency in sugarcane-dependent north-western India remained unchanged at 42 per cent.

The deficient rainfall is likely to result in a 20 per cent drop in the sowing of kharif or summer crops, Mukherjee said at the annual conference of chief commissioners and directors-general of income tax in New Delhi.

The India Meteorological Department has lowered its monsoon estimate to 87 per cent of the long period average, from the 93 per cent it predicted in June. However, the India IMD continues to predict, perhaps a little wishfully, that the monsoon will revive in the next few days.

Some 235 million Indian farmers who depend on rain-fed agriculture for a subsistence living would be desperately hoping that the meteorologists are right. This is widely expected to be the weakest monsoon in at least five years. Six states, accounting for about 47 per cent of India's farm output, have been impacted. Economists see this season as the worst since 2002-2003, when agriculture output contracted 5.9 per cent.

The poor showing might send food prices soaring in the world's second largest producer of sugar, rice and wheat and erode the prospects of an early economic recovery. The near-drought situation is seen to be shaving off one or two per cent of India's GDP growth this fiscal.

Bihar is among the states that has already declared about half of its districts to be drought-hit. Northern states like Haryana, almost equally impacted by low rainfall, are likely to demand big relief packages from the centre, exerting further pressure on the union budget, already affected by stimulus packages for industry.