Mumbai and Lucknow: It is peak farming season but Sunil Pagar of Nashik’s Utarane village has not even begun sowing on his 10-acre land. He plans to sow maize but a delayed southwest monsoon means there had been no rain in his village well until July 3. He is now wondering if he should sow bajra (pearl millet) because it requires less water. But since a lot of farmers are doing the same, he is unsure of the prices the crop will fetch.

Shetichi sagli ganita bighdun geli, vaatavaran sath det nahi, baajar sath det nahi, mahagai evdhi aani baajar bhav junech aahe (The entire mathematics of agriculture has been disrupted. Neither is the weather conducive for agriculture, nor is the market. Inflation is at its peak in terms of seeds, fertiliser, pesticide, but the rates that farmers get for their produce are the same),” said Pagar.

It is an El Niño year for India, a meteorological phenomenon that causes variations in monsoon, producing anomalously wet or dry years. That, coupled with the effect of Cyclone Biparjoy and other meteorological conditions, means that India stands at a 10% monsoon deficit by the end of June.

As of June 30, India’s southern peninsula had a 45% rainfall deficit, central India a 6% deficit and east and northeast India a 18% deficit. Only northwest India had received 42% surplus rain by this date, thanks to the cyclone. Rainfall over south peninsular India (88.6 mm) by June 30 was its lowest since 1901.

Bihar was preparing for a possible drought-like situation but rains have picked up there since the beginning of July. Overall, national agricultural production is only marginally affected. So far, India has seen a significant dip--between 13% to 79% deficit--in Kharif (monsoon) sowing of rice, arhar (a pulse), cotton, maize, sunflower crops. Bajra and castor and other crops have done better, with an increase of 28% to 177% in sowing. This changed in early July as some areas received good rainfall, but the shortfall in sowing of arhar, maize, sunflower, cotton and rice still remains.

The Union government is also closely watching the progress of the monsoon as the El Niño phenomenon could affect food security and inflation. Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das recently told the Press Trust of India that the Reserve Bank will strive to get headline inflation to its 4% target but added that El Niño would be a challenge to its efforts.

What the weatherman says

Monsoon onset is normally declared over Kerala around June 1. This year, the monsoon arrived in Kerala on June 8. Then, there was a delay in its advance over the southern peninsula and central India by seven to 12 days, and in northeast India by five days.

Between June 1 and June 21, India had a 33% rainfall deficit, which included central India with a deficit of 60%, southern peninsula with a deficit of 58%, east & northeast India with a deficit of 18% and northwest India with a surplus of 37%. It was only due to rainfall after June 25 that the deficit reduced in some of these regions and the overall deficit also came down to 10%. By July 2, the monsoon had covered all of India six days early but even then, as of July 6, 35% of districts had deficient rainfall, 32% had normal rainfall and 28% had excess or a large excess in rainfall.

In fact, India saw more than normal heat wave days in June in West Bengal, Odisha, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, east Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha and Telangana, data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) show.

June was unusually hot this year, with India recording its 10th highest average maximum temperature. For south India, this was the hottest June in recorded history, that is since 1901, with the average maximum temperature at 34.05ºC.

Bihar had a heat wave to a severe heat wave almost everyday between June 1 and 22, West Bengal between June 1 and 18, and east Uttar Pradesh between June 12 and 21.

The El Niño effect

Interannual variations are variations in the annual cycle of the monsoon producing anomalously wet or dry years. The major factors governing interannual variation of southwest monsoon are El Niño Southern oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). For India, there are high probabilities of El Niño conditions developing during the middle of the monsoon season and continuing till the first quarter of 2024, the IMD has warned. If that happens, El Niño could affect this year’s monsoon adversely.

And it is not just India that this phenomenon will affect. On July 4, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warned that El Niño conditions have developed in the tropical Pacific for the first time in seven years, setting the stage for a likely surge in global temperatures and disruptive weather and climate patterns.

According to the WMO’s State of the Global Climate reports, 2016 is the warmest year on record because of the “double whammy” of a very powerful El Niño event and human-induced warming from greenhouse gases. The effect on global temperatures is seen a year after its development and so this year’s impact will likely be most apparent in 2024.

Despite all this, the IMD is positive of good rainfall in July banking on the fact that in 16 of the 25 El Niño years, when rainfall in June was below normal, the rainfall in July was normal.

Farmers anxious

For farmers, such delays in the monsoon impact the cropping calendar.

Pramod Mishra, a resident of Uttar Pradesh’s Mariahu village in Jaunpur, planted his paddy nursery late this year. When asked why, he said, “Every year, we set up nurseries between May 15 and the first week of June. But this year the temperature during that period was very high. There is a looming fear of the nurseries ‘burning’ [saplings dying] in such a situation. So, we had to wait for some rain. But because of the delay in monsoons, the sowing of the crop was delayed by 15 to 20 days. Now this is going to affect the next cycle of sowing as we will have less time to prepare.”

This, in turn, increased his input costs too.

“The nursery I have just planted had to be irrigated with ground water. Other farmers whose nursery got damaged had to spend more to sow it again. Moreover, by the time the paddy would need water towards the end, the monsoon would have ended. This means we will have to pay again for irrigation,” said Mishra.

In addition to this, there were power cuts in rural UP.

“This led to unavailability of water, leading to delay in sowing the nursery. Had it rained on time, this loss would not have occurred. A delay in one crop translates into a mess for the entire crop cycle,” said Lakhimpur Kheri farmer Harish Singh.

Bihar’s Darbhanga district is known for cultivating fox nuts or makhana. But this time, fox nut farmers have also suffered due to less rain.

Farmer Dhirendra Kumar said, “This time because of the lack of rain in June and excessive heat, the makhana plants wilted. If it had rained, we would have taken them out from the pond in July or August. But this time, harvesting has to be done earlier which will cause a 15-20% decrease in production.”

Dhirendra also said that due to less rainfall, his water chestnut nursery has not yet been set up. Its cultivation is lagging by 15 to 20 days.

As of June 27, Bihar had received 29 mm rainfall as against the state’s average June rainfall of about 167.2 mm, said C. Anand Shankar, senior meteorologist at the Patna Meteorological Centre. By July 6, Bihar’s rainfall deficit had reduced to 24%. Even then, only three districts had received normal rainfall and three had received excess rainfall. The rest had either no rain or deficit rain.

Farmers’ woes are also reflected in India’s kharif sowing data for this year. Kharif crops’ area sown in the current year was 12.95 million hectare (ha) as compared to 13.56 million ha during the corresponding period of last year (data up to June 26). Sowing area under coarse cereals was 507,000 ha more as compared to the corresponding period last year but less area was sown with rice (-569,000 ha) and cotton (-465,000 ha).

This improved by June 30 as the total area sown under kharif crop stood at 20.3 million ha as compared to 20.2 million ha on that day last year.

But a breakup of these data shows that not all is well with kharif sowing. Rice sowing was still less at -26%, Arhar was -79%, maize -24%, sunflower -65%, and cotton at -13%. On the other hand, crops such as moong (28%), groundnut (34%), bajra (177%) and castor (171%) have exceeded expectations so far.

And a statewise breakup shows that area coverage of kharif crops is much lower in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Punjab and Telangana as compared to the corresponding period last year. As reflected in the rainfall data, both Gujarat and Rajasthan (Northwest India which has excess rainfall) have seen much higher kharif crop area sown in comparison.

Pushan Sharma, director (research) at CRISIL Market Intelligence and Analytics, confirmed that delay in southwest monsoon arrival and its slow pace had an adverse impact on kharif sowing in the first three weeks of June.

“However, with monsoon picking up pace since the last week of June, the overall acreage for kharif 2023 is unlikely to witness a decline. As of June 30, area under kharif crops is reported to be marginally higher.”

And will this impact overall foodgrain production? Sharma doesn’t think so.

With the probability of lower rainfall during August and September because of El Niño impact, yields for crops like cotton, oilseeds and pulses are expected to be marginally affected, said Sharma. Delay in sowing of these crops may lead to their late vegetative-early flowering phase coinciding with the predicted low rainfall situation [owing to El Niño]. Monsoon’s consistency and how well-distributed rainfall is over India remains key, believes Sharma.

R. Ramkumar, an agricultural economist and professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, also believes it is too early to say if this will result in reduction of overall area sown this year.

Ramanjaneyulu G.V., executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, said that the biggest concern right now is a possible drought in July-August period as it is a sensitive period for the crops.

“We should reduce the area under rice and use that water for other crops. But our irrigation systems are built for flood irrigation and not a controlled method. With paddy, the soil is puddled and other crops cannot be grown in that soil. Then either farmers transition to dry sowing or wait for the rains. Delayed sowing also delays rabi crops,” he said.

Ramanjaneyulu believes that efforts should be made towards covering the farmers' risk, in terms of insurance and compensation.

IndiaSpend has reached out to Union Ministry of Agriculture and the National Food Security Mission on what measures they are taking to provide information and support to farmers on the backdrop of delayed kharif sowing, whether this is expected to affect India's overall food production this year, and what steps the government is taking to towards insurance and compensation for farmers. We will update this story when they respond.

Sunil Pagar, the farmer from Maharashtra’s Nashik, is tired of the uncertainty. He is now hoping for good rains in the first few weeks of July so that he can plant his maize.

“My generation is tired of agriculture now and we don’t want to do it anymore but we have no other form of livelihood and no alternative. Nobody wants to do farm labour also because other areas pay more for labour than agriculture. I don’t know if the next generations will want to do farming at all,” said Pagar.

(Shreehari Paliath, Nushaiba Iqbal and Nupur Maley contributed to this report.)

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