In a little over a week from now, the southwest monsoon will begin its annual journey across the Indian subcontinent. With pre-monsoon showers drenching southern India over the past week, expectations are running high.

The countdown to one of the most anticipated phenomena in the country has begun.

According to the Indian Metrological Department (IMD), the monsoon will arrive at the southern Indian state of Kerala on May 30, two days ahead of schedule. After drenching Kerala it will quickly race up India’s west coast and by the end of June, it should reach all of India.

But the monsoon’s advance is hard to predict. It is whimsical and teases India every year. It races towards the Indian coast and then, just as Indians begin thanking the rain gods, it slows down, only to gather pace again days later, racing and retreating repeatedly through June and July.

Its arrival and advance are full of drama and spectacle. It has been likened to a strip tease, with the monsoon playing the role of an alluring dancer, Met officials, who announce the monsoon’s advance, providing the drum roll for the performance, and India’s 1.3 billion-strong population acting as the audience.

Harsh summer

The build-up to the monsoon is intense. Summer is brutally hot in India; temperatures in the plains cross 46 degrees centigrade. As scorching wind sucks the soil dry and singes all that lies in its path, all eyes turn to the skies. Where are the clouds? When will the rains come?

The monsoon heralds the end of the long dry summer. It lowers temperatures and over a period of four months (June-September) provides India with 70% of its annual rain.

It is celebrated in Indian poetry, dance and music, with some melodies even dedicated to this season

The IMD provides its first monsoon forecast in April and then follows that up with periodic updates of its advance. In mid-May, the bugle is sounded as the monsoon strikes India’s Andaman Islands and Nicobar Islands. The stage is now set for its arrival in the Indian mainland.

The IMD has predicted a “normal” monsoon this year. But it is still too early to celebrate given the monsoon’s capricious nature. Also, “normal” monsoons often leave some regions dry.

Although 2016 was a “normal monsoon” year, the southern states of Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu suffered severe drought. It was Karnataka’s third consecutive year of drought and its worst in four decades, and Tamil Nadu reeled under its worst decade in 140 years.

Key role

The monsoon plays an important part in the life of Indians. It is celebrated in Indian poetry, dance and music, with some melodies even dedicated to this season. But also, it is central to India’s economy.

In a country where agriculture provides the livelihood to over half the population and where 46% of the net sown area is dependent on water from rains, a failed monsoon could spell disaster for millions of farmers.

So ruinous is the impact of a failed monsoon that it could bring down a government. Severe drought in 2002-03 is often blamed for the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the 2004 Indian parliamentary election. It was also the main factor underlying the defeat of ruling parties in state assembly elections that year in  several states.

A deficit monsoon also fuels India’s water conflicts. The conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the waters of the River Cauvery turns violent during years when the monsoons fail to bring rain in catchment areas of the river. With reservoirs in both states drying up on account of the failed monsoon last year, violent unrest persisted for weeks. Will 2017 be more peaceful?

Southern India is covered with a heavy canopy of clouds. Thunder and lightning accompany the pre-monsoon rains. The drum roll has begun for the main event and the audience is looking up to the heavens with hope. Will the monsoon dance disappoint?