India’s weather forecasters need to spruce up their act because farmers and ordinary citizens are suffering huge losses due to incorrect predictions on erratic rainfall brought on by climate change

Erratic rainfall in Maharashtra has led to the increasing incidence of droughts (Photo by Rohit Gowaikar)

There was a rarest of rare police complaint registered in July last year at Majalgaon in Beed district of Maharashtra, when farmer-activist Gangabhishan Tawre lodged a complaint against India Meteorological Department (IMD) for deceptive weather forecast of monsoon 2017.

Tawre mentioned that weather department at Mumbai and Pune predicted good monsoon rainfall for the month of June. As a result, farmers went ahead with their summer sowing. Expenses towards seeds, fertilizer and labour were utterly wasted, as rainfall was totally absent in June. The police complaint by Taware in a way represents the resentment of millions of farmers and citizens across the country.

The Indian monsoon decides and shapes the economic cycle and is sometimes called the country’s finance minister. Accuracy in predicting the monsoon is vital for all sections in India. The uncertainty of rains makes Indian agriculture a gamble. Every year helpless farmers listen anxiously all sorts of forecasts, from local astrologers to IMD. An accurate weather forecast is necessary in every stage of farming.

However, IMD, which is the principal government agency pertaining to all matters regarding weather over India, functions as per its own age-old agenda, without taking into account the expectations of the people.

Increasing attention is being drawn nowadays towards the average increase in 1 degree Celsius temperature in countries like India, Bangladesh and Indonesia, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) says will likely to reduce the GDP of these countries by 1.33%. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organisation established by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) in 1988, regularly issues assessment reports on climate change, which clearly indicate that recent changes in weather systems have had widespread impact on human and natural systems.

Two citizens from Mumbai have asked for information on weather forecasting and functioning to IMD many times under the right to information law since 2014. They have filed an appeal to the Central Vigilance Commission because the information supplied was unsatisfactory. The issue is yet to be resolved.

Forecasters as scientists

Weather forecasters and experts in weather and climate are called meteorologists across the world but as far as IMD is concerned, its Class I officers are designated as scientists. As per the Department of Science and Technology (DST), a scientist should be involved in creating new scientific knowledge or innovative engineering, technological or medical techniques or those who are predominantly involved in professional research and development work.

India’s weather forecasters need to be more accurate on early storm warnings (Photo by Jose Antonio Alba)

However, the scientists at IMD seem to be static in their methods of forecasting. Although they predicted a normal monsoon in 2017, 40% of India’s districts faced the threat of drought, whereas 25% of the districts experienced 100 mm and more rainfall within an hour. As many as 16 places in the country recorded over 244 mm rainfall in a day. Mount Abu had witnessed the extremely heavy rainfall in a day, which is equivalent to half of its annual total rainfall. Bengaluru and Chandigarh, too, experienced heavy rainfall in one day. Could IMD offer early warning of heavy rainfall, hailstorm, lightening?

On 29 August 2017, when Mumbai was flooded due to heavy rainfall amounting to 300 mm, the Maharashtra State Disaster Management Authority (MSDMA) and the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation pointed at IMD’s inadequate forecasting. The IMD issued heavy rain warning for the very next day. Accordingly, all citizens of India’s commercial capital were advised not to venture out, but there was no heavy rainfall on that day. Forecasters in IMD are aware of the fact that there is usually no public outcry for false warning or overestimation of disasters.

Recently, when Cyclone Ockhi was heading towards the Maharashtra and Gujarat coast, the regional head of IMD Mumbai with some officers went to Shillong to take part in a seminar promoting the use of Hindi language. How can one justify the absence of a regional head of the Met department at the time when once-in-a-decade natural calamity like cyclone was hovering over the Arabian Sea?

Multiple agencies

In 2006, the government of India created the Ministry of Earth Sciences, which included the Ministry of Ocean Development, IMD, Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), and National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF). These institutes carry out various functions related to weather forecasting and climate research for surface as well ocean.

As IMD and allied institutes moved out of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in 2006, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) established the Meteorological and Oceanographic Satellite Data Archival Centre (MOSDAC) to issue weather forecasts and advisories. Apart from these government agencies, there are private companies such as Skymet that issue weather forecasts.

These companies and all government agencies claim their weather forecast is accurate. However, there is no evidence of any disaster risk reduction due to their forecasts. Are these agencies disconnected or is there lack of coordination among them? With the legacy of almost 142 years of weather predictions and implementation of various modernisation programmes and well-established network of observatories, a daunting question pops up in the mind about reliability of weather forecasts.

In this era of climate change, we must ask IMD why our whether prediction model still depends on a statistical model when other countries are developing cloud dynamics models. When would we claim the reduction of losses even after high degrees of disaster? We will have to ascertain the responsibility and accountability of Meteorologists in IMD as millions of public money is spent regularly.


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