NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The government is scrambling to divert power supplies to the countryside to irrigate rice and oilseed crops and limit damage after the worst start to the vital monsoon season in eight decades has raised fears of a drought.
The shift threatens to worsen the summer power deficit that has plagued India for decades, particularly with the country’s hydropower plants running below 40 percent of capacity as scanty rains have depleted reservoirs.
Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is worried about the shortfall in monsoon rains as hydropower accounts for one quarter of India’s total power generation of 149,400 megawatts.
He said the government had ensured a higher supply of electricity to Punjab and Haryana states, the key grain producing regions, to help irrigation.
“They have the water but they don’t have the power,” Shinde said, adding India already faced a power shortage of 15,000-20,000 megawatts.
India’s farm minister, Sharad Pawar, said on Monday that monsoon rains were expected to improve this week, while the latest weather office bulletin forecasts heavy rains in coastal areas of southern India and parts of central India.
Last week the U.S. government said that an El Nino weather pattern is developing, putting countries from Asia to North America on alert for meteorological havoc to crops and infrastructure.
The phenomenon is caused by a warming of seas in the Pacific.
In the mineral-rich eastern state of Orissa, at least 5,000 people were affected by flash floods and 11 people were drowned, Orissa Flood Control Officer B.B. Patnaik said.
In the western city of Mumbai, waters in the main river rose and services on the crucial railway lines were shut because of incessant rain since Monday night.
Television channels showed images of people wading through knee deep water and flooded railway tracks.
In the farm sector, which provides livelihoods to two-thirds of India’s 1.1 billion people, weak monsoons would hit the oilseed crop and could force India to import a record amount of edible oils in the crop year to October.
In central India, the output of the soybean crop may fall, potentially hitting oilmeal exports from Asia’s top meal exporter, traders said.
The government has already shown signs of nerves, stopping wheat exports 10 days after it lifted a two-year ban on shipments this month.
So far, the government has declared four districts in the central Indian state of Jharkhand and the northeastern state of Manipur as drought-hit but these states are not key grain producers.
But sowing of rice, groundnut and soybeans has been delayed in most parts of northern and central India, junior farm minister K.V. Thomas told parliament on Tuesday.
Industry officials are also worried about the fall in domestic oilseed production in India, the world’s top vegetable oils importer after China.
“The erratic monsoon and likely lower summer-sown oilseeds crop will further push imports in September and October months and overall imports are likely to be about 8.0 million tonnes,” the Solvent Extractors Association said in a statement.
India’s monsoon rains were 46 percent below normal in the month of June, while in the first week of July, rainfall was 29 percent below normal, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.
India depends heavily on monsoon rains as only 40 percent of its farmland has access to irrigation facilities.
Additional reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj, Nidhi Verma, Jatindra Dash and Shilpa Jamkhandikar