These dark clouds are not ominous, for a change. When they start gathering over the coastal state of Kerala, a tiny strip of land lying at the southern tip of India, there is jubilation across the country.

Both the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Skymet, India’s only private weather forecaster, have predicted a normal monsoon this year. Those who are chasing the clouds are heaving a sigh of relief, literally.

Why is it so important to have normal rains?

The monsoon is critical for agriculture in the country since nearly 60% of India’s net arable land lacks irrigation. The monsoon delivers about 70% of India’s annual rainfall and determines the yield of several grains and pulses, including rice, wheat, and sugarcane. Agriculture may have steadily lost its grip on India’s overall economy, but it still holds around 15% of the pie, and employs millions of people.

More importantly, higher agriculture yield would mean lower pressure on food prices and the overall retail inflation. It is also crucial to keep up the rural demand. A slew of FMCG, consumer goods, and auto companies are keeping their fingers crossed to see if normal rains help them offset the pandemic-related slowdown.

The rains also replenish nearly 100 large reservoirs critical for drinking water and power generation across the country. In the event of deficient rains, cities such as Chennai, Mumbai, and Hyderabad will be forced to cut water supplies.

On April 16, IMD said India is likely to have a normal monsoon this year (assessed at 98% per cent of long period average or LPA), according to its long-range forecast. A week later, Skymet said in its monsoon forecast for 2021 that the upcoming monsoon will be ‘healthy normal’ to the tune of 103% (with an error margin of +/- 5%) of the LPA of 880.6mm for the four-month period from June to September.

On May 6, IMD also forecast that the south-west monsoon will most likely hit the Kerala coast on time. “IMD’s ERF (extended range forecast) suggests that the monsoon will arrive over Kerala on time, around June 1. This is an early indication,” tweeted Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences.

This is definitely good news. It means excellent monsoons for India for the third year running. In 2019, it was 110% of the LPA; in 2020, it was 109% of the LPA. In 2018, when Kerala reeled under a severe flood, India received 9% lower rainfall than normal. In some regions, the deficit was much severe, as high as 37%.

A normal, or average, monsoon means rainfall between 96% and 104% of a 50-year average of 89 cm (35 inches) in total during the four-month monsoon season from June to September, according to the IMD’s classification. Rainfall below 90% of the average is classified as deficient, the same as a drought. Rainfall above 110% of the average would mean an excessive monsoon, which could cause flooding and reduce the yields of certain crops.

Policymaking in the country has a lot to do with the monsoon. As the season starts with rains on the southern Kerala coast around June 1, all eyes will be on the state with a long coastline along the Arabian Sea. It usually covers the country by August-September.

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) is relieved with the forecast of a normal monsoon. On May 5, the RBI governor said in a statement that the normal monsoon as predicted by the IMD is expected to sustain rural demand and overall output in 2021-22, while also having a soothing impact on inflation pressures.

“A normal south-west monsoon should help to contain food price pressures, especially in cereals and pulses,” said the central bank, which is still concerned about the build-up in input price pressures across sectors, driven in part by elevated global commodity prices. The inflation trajectory over the rest of the year will be shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic and the impact of localised containment measures on supply chains and logistics, said the RBI.

As the pandemic continues to spread across the country, the central bank can’t afford to deal with a spurt in inflation. Inflation based on the consumer price index (CPI), which tracks the change in retail prices of goods and services which households purchase for their daily consumption, has already edged up to 5.5% in March 2021 from 5% in the previous month on the back of a “pick-up in food as well as fuel inflation”. Core inflation (which denotes the change in prices of goods and services except those from the food and energy sectors) has remained elevated too.

According to the RBI, high-frequency food prices data for April 2021 from the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) has suggested further softening of prices of cereals and key vegetables while price pressures in pulses and edible oils remain. “Prices of petrol and diesel registered some moderation in April. Manufacturing and services PMIs along with rising WPI inflation show a persistence of input price pressure,” it said.

Everyone now awaits the May 12 release of the National Statistical Office which will have more details on inflation in April.

According to Skymet, the plains of North India along with a few parts of the North-East region are likely to be at risk of being rain-deficient through the season. Also, the interior parts of Karnataka face the scare of scanty rains in the core monsoon months of July and August, says the weather forecaster. The onset month of June and the withdrawal phase of September assure of good countrywide rainfall distribution.

“La Niña conditions prevailing in the Pacific Ocean since last year presage softening and are expected to remain neutral through the monsoon season. The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) continues to wield a spike mid-way through the season suggesting a fresh phase of cooling, albeit marginal, over the central Pacific Ocean. Therefore, the occurrence of El Niño which normally corrupts the monsoon is ruled out,” said Yogesh Patil, CEO, Skymet, in a statement. ENSO is a recurring climate pattern involving changes in the temperature of waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean.

In the pre-monsoon season, Kerala has turned rain-surplus, as predicted by Skymet. The state has recorded an excess of 32% rainfall between March 1 and May 4. Kerala has fared well though the neighbouring sub-divisions of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Andhra Pradesh faced significant shortages, according to the private forecaster.

The IMD will release the second stage monsoon Long Range Forecast (LRF) on May 15 with a well-defined projection. It is likely to have the precise date of arrival and its progress over to the mainland.

For the central government, which has promised to double farmers’ income over five years, a normal monsoon is extremely crucial.

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