LUCKNOW, India - Amarnath Sharma has waited weeks for rains to soak his parched rice paddies so he can start planting.
He is one of millions of farmers across India who are hoping and praying for elusive monsoon showers. But their hopes are being dashed this season: India's Meteorological Department says it expects the country to get at least 10 percent less rain this year than normal during the June-to-September monsoon.
The shortfall also is expected to swell electricity demand in a power-starved nation as farmers turn to irrigation pumps to keep their fields watered. Earlier this week, three of India's regional electricity grids failed for hours in a blackout that affected a swath of the country with about 620 million people.
In a statement late Thursday, the department said rains between June and Aug. 1 have been 19 percent below normal. The remaining August to September monsoon will also be weak because of the impact of warming of the central Pacific Ocean, known as the El Nino, the agency said.
Several Indian states have already declared near-drought conditions and are demanding extra federal funds or announcing large subsidies to help farmers buy diesel fuel to generate electricity to irrigate their fields. Officials in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous - fear that a drought is around the corner. Sharma, a rice farmer in the state, said if it doesn't rain in the next few days he'll forgo a rice crop this year.
"At this time of the year we generally make preparations to tackle floods but paucity of rain has raised an apprehension about drought engulfing the major part of the state," state Agriculture Production Commissioner Alok Ranjan told The Associated Press in the state capital Lucknow on Friday.
In the western state of Gujarat, Bharat, who goes by one name, has waited a long time for his thirsty fields to be quenched. "We are tired of looking at the sky, but the rain just doesn't fall," he said. In the eastern state of Bihar, at least eight out of 38 districts have received rains 70 percent below normal, said Anil Kumar Jha, the deputy director of the state's agriculture department.
Jha said the state is spending 6.19 billion rupees ($112 million) on subsidizing diesel so that farmers could generate electricity to draw up ground water. Several other states - Haryana and Punjab in the north, Maharashtra in the west and the southern state of Karnataka - have all recorded poor rainfall.
These states grow a large amount of the country's rice, wheat, oilseeds and cereals. A poor monsoon sends ripples across the Indian economy because about 60 percent of the population works in agriculture and over half of the farmlands are rain-fed with much of the rest irrigated from rapidly depleting underground aquifers.
The sector contributes up to 20 percent to India's gross domestic product. A poor monsoon also can worsen inflation of food prices. "If the government doesn't help us we will die of hunger. There's no water to drink and no food to eat," said Bharat, the farmer from western India.
BISWAJEET BANERJEE, Associated Press
The Associated Press