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Monsoon advances even as heatwave bakes north

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-06-2014 Penelope Macrae

New Delhi: India’s monsoon, dubbed an “economic lifeline”, advanced along the southern coast on Saturday after arriving nearly a week late as a heatwave baked the north, causing blackouts in the power-starved country.

As one of the world’s top producers of rice, wheat and sugar, India relies heavily on the southwest monsoon that sweeps the subcontinent from June to September to water its crops.

“The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has declared the onset of the monsoon,” the weather department said in a website notice on Saturday.

The monsoon is being watched closely amid fears weak rains could further slow an economy grappling with its worst downturn since 1985 and pose a major challenge to the newly elected right-wing government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The meteorological department has predicted below average rains with a 23% chance of a “deficient monsoon”.

Indians in southern Kerala rejoiced as downpours eased scorching temperatures, but northern India was gripped by a heatwave with the mercury climbing as high as 48 degrees Celsius.

The southwest monsoon remained weak on Saturday though parts of Kerala received rains and isolated heavy rainfall has been predicted till 10 June, the Press Trust of India reported. According to a bulletin issued by the meteorological centre in Thiruvananthapuram, the monsoon was weak over the state. “Southwest monsoon is weak over Kerala. Rain occurred at many places in the state. Mainly dry weather prevailed over Lakshadweep,” the bulletin said.

In parts of the capital, New Delhi, people complained about up to 10-hour power cuts. Some staged protests against outages, a chronic problem in India where power generation infrastructure is ramshackle.

“Due to rising temperatures, demand for power has shot up,” Delhi Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung told the Press Trust of India, warning, “There could be blackouts for another three to four days to cope with the crisis.”

Rainfall is running at around 40% below average and the weather office said the rains may only advance to central India toward the end of June.

The monsoon is on a “sluggish march”, IMD chief L.S. Rathore said.

India’s monsoon arrived on Friday, five days after it normally strikes, and some forecasters say risks of weak rains have been heightened by the El Nino effect, associated with a drier monsoon.

Just 40% of the nation’s arable land is irrigated and poor rains can mean disaster for India’s 235 millions farmers, many of them scraping a living.

Farming represents 14% of economic activity, down from 50% in the 1950s, but supports 700 million rural Indians who help drive consumer demand for cars to gold.

A good monsoon is seen as key to helping revive the economy growing at just under five percent, far below near double-digit expansion in boom years.

India has enjoyed normal or above-normal monsoons during the past few years but in 2009, the monsoon failed, shrivelling crops.

Rising food prices would also fuel headline inflation and keep interest rates high, discouraging growth-promoting investment, economists say.

“For this summer, inflation will still be driven by the weather,” said investment house HSBC. AFP

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