It’s not the only crop that’s in crisis. Tomato prices have risen fivefold or more in recent months, prompting heists from stores, markets and trucks, and causing farmers to camp out in their fields to protect their produce from theft. One Twitter user said her sister brought 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of the vegetable in her luggage during a visit from her home in Dubai. Once again, heavy rainfall in tomato-producing states has been the culprit.
Up to now, India’s most politically contentious crop has remained largely immune. Onion prices, blamed for the fall of governments in 1980, 1998 and 2014, have only risen modestly in recent months. That’s no guarantee that the situation will stabilize, however: It’s typically in October and November that price spikes occur, when the country finds out whether damp weather has destroyed the winter crop in storage and the monsoon one in the fields. New Delhi, facing general elections in the second quarter of 2024, has been stockpiling bulbs to quell such volatility.
What’s remarkable about all this is that India as a whole isn’t having a particularly unusual monsoon. Rainfall has been about 5% above average levels so far, but total monsoon precipitation typically varies 10% in either direction from year to year.
The problem is that this average conceals huge fluctuations across space and time. East of Delhi — especially in the grain-producing breadbaskets of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal — it’s been unusually dry, while western states, where pulses, oilseeds and vegetable crops predominate, have been soaked. Making matters worse, the clockwork operation of the monsoon has been disrupted, with dry early weeks giving way to unusually wet conditions more recently.
This is precisely what climate models have predicted for decades — a monsoon that grows more intense as the climate heats up, with warmer air carrying more moisture and dumping it in less predictable ways, leading to more volatile cycles of drought and flooding. That will hold the entire country back. Extreme weather was already costing India $10 billion in 2017 — equivalent to about 0.4% of gross domestic product.
There’s a grand injustice to the fact that a nation that accounts for just 3.7% of the world’s historic carbon emissions — a smaller share than Germany — should be facing some of the worst damage. At the same time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is responsible for its own policy choices, and many will only exacerbate the problems of food security on a warming planet.
Take road transport. India is falling well behind other major auto markets in its shift to electric cars and buses, with sales percentages in the single digits last year despite better performance from three-wheelers and two-wheelers. One factor has been the lackluster rollout of charging stations, with 135 cars per public charger compared to 19 in the US and six in China and the Netherlands.
Where India is succeeding is biofuel. The government is running ahead of its 10% ethanol blending mandate and looks on track to hit a 20% rate by 2025 as it seeks to trim its oil import bill. That’s putting pressure on farm production, however. Sugarcane is a thirsty crop which, unlike most Indian food grains, needs a whole year or more to grow to maturity. It predominates in many of the same northern states where rice and wheat would otherwise be grown.
Thanks to government pricing levels that make it an unusually profitable crop, the area planted went up around 17% between 2017 and 2022, while rice had an 8% increase and pulse fields shrank by 0.8%. If policymakers want to reduce emissions while cutting the impact of petroleum on the balance of payments, they need to reverse the current situation where biofuels are prioritized over electrification.
With renewables, too, India needs to lift its game. The 15.7 gigawatts of wind and solar installed last year is only about half of what is needed to hit the government’s target and left the country 32% short of where it had intended to be by that date. Planned tenders of 50 gigawatts a year through March 2028 are markedly more ambitious — but they need to be turned from words into reality first.
No country will suffer more from climate change this century than India — but no country is going to see its emissions grow faster over the coming decade. If New Delhi doesn’t want to see a future of more crop failures, floods, droughts, export bans and farmer suicides, it’s going to need to do everything to reverse that trend.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
India Is Encouraging the Heatwaves That Will Cripple It: David Fickling
Want to Save the Planet? Re-Industrialize: Andy Mukherjee
Ukraine Has Given the World a Blueprint to Fight Hunger: Amanda Little
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
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