“The Indian budget is a gamble on the monsoon” is a clichéd statement that has been made repeatedly for more than a hundred years. Even very recently, when Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee presented the budget for the fiscal year 2011-12 to the Indian parliament, he had to invoke the blessings of Lord Indra, the god of rain, although he did not precisely call his budget a gamble.

The gamble comes into the game because of four factors:
(1) the Indian fiscal year begins on 1 April and ends on 31 March of the next year,
(2) the budget for the fiscal year has to be prepared by February end,
(3) the southwest monsoon arrives over the country on 1 June on an average, and
(4) it has never been possible to make a successful prediction of an all-India drought.

The quantum and distribution of the southwest monsoon rains over India during June to September largely determines the agricultural production during the kharif season. Even in the rabi season the crop production is dependent on the amount of moisture left over in the soil after the cessation of monsoon rains. In a good monsoon year, crops give bountiful yields, farmers’ incomes soar, their purchasing power rises, and industry responds. In a drought year, crops wilt, animals perish, the population has to be fed out of buffer stocks, farmers have to be bailed out, and industry suffers. Whatever one may talk about monsoon-proofing the Indian economy, that the “Indian budget is a gamble on the monsoon” says it all.

It is most commonly believed that Lord Curzon, Viceroy and Governor-General of India was the first to have said it, while addressing the British parliament in the year 1905. But the question is, did he really say that?

Famines were recurrent in pre-independence India under the British rule. In 1899 alone, the year of the Great Indian Famine, three million people are feared to have died of hunger and starvation. Curzon was appointed Viceroy of India in that fateful year. In the course of his tenure as Viceroy, Curzon had certainly become knowledgeable about the Indian monsoon and its impact on India and this is how he had described it in a speech he had delivered in London in 1904: “You have your sunshine and storms, your drought and floods in this country, but you do not know the awful possibilities that are summed up in the single word ‘monsoon’, and which spell the difference in India between life and death to areas in any one of which the whole of the United Kingdom might be swallowed up.”

Curzon’s reign continued until 1905, and towards the end of it India faced an all-India drought in two successive years 1904 and 1905, a probabilistically rare situation. However, 1905 was also the year in which he executed the partition of Bengal for which he earned the wrath of the Indian public. He had also developed differences of opinion with the British Government, particularly about the reorganization of the Indian military structure, that led ultimately to his resignation. In such a scenario, it is quite unlikely that he would have had the time or the opportunity for talking to the British parliament about the gamble on the monsoon. In fact, there is no record of Curzon ever having made such a statement anywhere at any time.

A statement that comes nearest to the clichéd version is known to have been made in 1909 by Guy Fleetwood Wilson, the financial member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council: “I recognise that estimating in this country is largely a gamble in rain”. This would have been discussed in the British parliament as there was a prevailing practice to present before it each year a summary of the Indian budget estimates. In 1909, Lord Minto was the Viceroy.

In an apparent reference to Wilson, Pramathanath Banerjee has written in his book entitled “A Study of Indian Economics” (1911, 1915): “the framing of the annual budget of the government of India has been described by a recent finance minister as a ‘gamble in rain.’ ” However, another book entitled “Gokhale and Economic Reforms” (1916), specifically mentions Wilson: “It was Sir G. F. Wilson who characterised the Indian budget as ‘a gamble in rain’ on account of the fact of the monsoon being always a dominating factor in the forecasting of revenue and expenditure in this country.”

The Hansard record of debates in the British House of Commons during the 1920s and 1930s does have several references to G. F. Wilson’s “gamble in rain” phrase. He was quoted in a speech by Sir Frank Nelson before the House of Commons in 1925: “A very well-known Indian Finance Minister, Sir Fleetwood Wilson, once described the Indian Budget as a gamble in rain, and, to a very large extent, although, of course, irrigation has carried us on each year, it is still largely a gamble in rain, for with a bad monsoon the tendency is naturally for the exchange to fall, and, in a good year, when there are bumper crops, and our exports in India largely exceed our imports, the tendency, naturally, is to rise.” Frank Nelson had been Chairman of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Bombay Legislative Council, before he returned to England and was elected Member of Parliament.

Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, the father of India’s green revolution, has attributed the “gamble on the rain” phrase to another agricultural scientist, Sir Albert Howard, who was Imperial Economic Botanist to the Government of India from 1905 to 1924 and established the Pusa Institute. He is presumed to have said it in 1916, but the original reference is not available in scientific literature.

To conclude, my own gamble is that the oft-repeated remark “the Indian budget is a gamble on the monsoon” was originally made by Sir Guy Fleetwood Wilson in 1909 and his exact words were: “I recognise that estimating in this country is largely a gamble in rain”.

Acknowledgement: I express my sincere thanks to Penny Brook, John O’Brien and Nalini Persad of the British Library, London, for their help in tracing out G. F. Wilson’s original reference and to Ulka Kelkar, Bangalore, for searching other references.