Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Weather : Nothing official about it....

One way of classifying countries is the way they treat "weather".....

Till I left the shores of India in 1970 (for a few years), I had never realized that it could be a topic for conversation. I mean, it was fine in cases where rain flooded the entire first floor of your house, and someone else was talking about boating in their garden, but smiling and nodding at rank strangers and saying ,"Wonderful day, isn't it?", when nothing alarmingly exciting was happening, used to feel a bit pseudo, if you get what I mean.

And then I realized, that watching news on television and paying great attention to the weatherman/woman forecasting the next days situation, , was something folks took seriously. People cancelled weekend camping if rain was forecast. And, no surprise, it always rained when they said it would. People packed a few more warm clothes when temperatures were scheduled to dip in winter, and there was no chance that you would be suddenly sweating instead.

They took weather seriously. And so , it was discussed, not suffered.

Way back, when I was in middle school, weather was not such a hot topic. I mean you had seasons, which more or less stuck to their schedule, and weather forecasts in newspapers (there was no TV then), mainly consisted , of showing, a bunch of maximum and minimum temperatures here and there, mainly to fill up columns. There was great attention paid to "accurately" describing possible rainfall in terms like , "scattered rain likely in parts of south central Maharashtra"; which really said nothing you didn't know.

Then TV happened. And you always got the impression that the weather part of the news was there to fill in a few minutes, while the main anchor had a much needed drink of water. The weatherperson , always announced things in a way, that implied that he/she had some extra secret information , and they always showed us some INSAT-1B satellite pictures to create a high-tech impression. And never mind that it indicated the then current weather and nobody knew what would happen the next day......

Nothing has changed, except the dresses worn by the weather anchor.

So it was not surprising at all, that we were suddenly inundated yesterday, regarding news , about a cyclone hitting West Bengal, and Kolkatta, as the innocent populace there, went about their daily grind.

This has been the pattern of weather prediction.

A few days ago, there was a news report, about some bureaucratic scholarly meteorologist talking about a "depression" in the Bay of Bengal. While people concentrated on using big words, and getting their name spellings correct in newspapers, this Depression moved around, and possibly grew and spread. A Department of meteorology should have been able to give early warnings about possible havoc in relevant parts of the country. Cyclone movements are eminently traceable.

But , as it happens every year, the meteorological department has such a hang up, about predicting the onset of the Southwest Monsoon, and whether it will rain in Mumbai 10 days after it reaches Kerala (in the southern tip of the country), that folks in Kolkatta were caught totally unawares, by the sudden darkness at noon , followed by massive winds and rain. Flights were disrupted, trees were uprooted in the cities, causing serious destruction , human and non human, huge amount of flooding in other parts of West Bengal ravaged the countryside, leading to horrendous damage, and loss of life.

And amidst reports in the press of the ensuing havoc, a smug announcement from the weather-types, saying. "We can confirm that the the monsoon has set in, in Kerala". (So would thousands of citizens , who have learned by trialo and error to anticipate the monsoon)......

The government grant for Plan Budget outlays to IMD for the 8th, 9th and 10th Five Year Plans were Rupees 130 crores, Rupees 254 crores and Rupees 309 crores respectively. (This from an answer given in Parliament by the concerned minister). I crore Rs = 10,000,000 Rs = 210,228.04 USD at today's conversion rate.

A few questions.

Like in education, do we have our priorities wrong ? While , for some reason , we seem to be concentrating on being no 1 in ownership of cell phones in the world, and planning for bullet trains, someone needs to pay attention, to some kind of cost benefit analysis, regarding the functioning of the Meteorological department, and its interface with other administrative and operations related urban/rural set ups.

Disaster Action Committees set lofty aims, and are crammed with politicians. Mumbai has had several traumatic monsoon events, since 2005, but other than "meeting ", minuting and publicizing, no one has bothered to check if the plans are being adhered to, if deviations from it are being rectified, and whether the quality of the "completed" work stands up to strict scrutiny. And while some completely IT-disabled, politically-enabled folks acquire official laptops as part of the "handouts", no one bothers to show them how they can see the progress of the cyclone on a map on the Internet.

So while the IMD kept mum about a developing heavy rain cloud cover of 15 miles height, till it discharged itself horrendously over Mumbai on 26th July 2005, four years down the line, the big excitement is about when the rains will hit Mumbai.

The various city agencies have suitably incomplete road projects, all dug up, to ensure maximum flooding. They are also pointing guilty fingers at other municipal agencies, and someone has caught on to the fact that the tide is going to be the highest it has been in the last hundred years , on July 24, 2009. There is a planned effort to psyche people into staying home on that day. Pregnant ladies scheduled to deliver around that date are in tension about going in to hospital 4 days earlier. The authorities are recommending that schools declare holidays (on their own initiative), and the populace is being asked not to venture out unnecessarily. (No one who travels by public transport in the monsoon thinks it is a picnic. They go because, for many, their day's earning, and their family's food, depends on it )

In a world where cyclones are sedately named after women, the IMD even got that wrong.

The Kolkatta cyclone was named "Aila".....

While to western ears this may sound like a sweet feminine name, in my language, Marathi, which is widely spoken in Mumbai, it is an expletive, and had I uttered it in my family in my childhood or even later, a few palms would have made strong contact with my face, besides branding me uncouth.

Maybe its time we went back to natural methods of weather prediction, that farmers know. Like bird calls, appearances of certain insects, direction of the wind, appearances of certain clouds, behaviour of animals.....

Or maybe, we can outsource this to the US ? Mr Obama, are you listening?


  1. Time and again, year after year, the IMD fails to deliver!
    But yet,year after year crores of taxpayers' money is pumped into the department....
    what a shame that despite it all, thousands of lives are lost, crores of property/areas devasted, year after year...and no one is held answerable...

  2. This is a hilarious post for anyone who has ever watched a weather forecast. If the rain clouds are overhead who needs to hear that there is a 70% chance of rain? Any idiot with a window to peer out of already knows that. And if the forecast is for the next 5 days, they usually get it wrong. So what good are those gals in tight clothes waving their pointers around? I guess to give the guys a thrill.

  3. Ah the weather. And ofcourse...ah the forecasts !

    In my opinion, the weather is as predictable as the forecast itself. 'today it may or may not rain' ! Ofcourse..!

    And this 'aila' business was a point of discussion too. And wonder as to who gets to name such cyclones.

    The ones is the US get names like 'Katrina' and Kolkatta gets Aila !
    This is discrimination. Given the mood, the left will start an agitation, ably supported by Mamta and whoever would care.

    As for the cyclone itself, that would have passed.


  4. The first and second para.. agadi agadi.

  5. Don't wish Katrina as a name. *shivers* This time of year, everyone is tense in the area, even if a hurricane isn't underway. We ~know it's the season and that's enough to set off depression and anxiety and wondering, "Where will we evacuate to this year?"

    And for what it's worth ~ we did have organizations that supposedly considered the hurricane evac. routes and assistance, but history speaks for itself on the failure. It wasn't until something horrible, Katrina, that it spoke up so loudly the government had to listen. I could go off on this subject. It still boils my blood.

    How many years later - and there are still blue tarp roofs in New Orleans....

  6. "Nothing has changed, except the dresses worn by the weather anchor".

    So true. I never rely on forecasts about anything. You would be better to pray and een then it dosnt always turn out the way you want it to.

    And Aletas comment is sad about the blue tarps still over New Orleans, terrible. I dont think any government body is equipped or prepared enough until disaster happens. We know that here with bushfires and flooding.

    I would however, like to name a cyclone or hurricane -- mmm I have a few choice names in mind and they would never be female names at all......

  7. I always have to laugh every time I look at the ten day weather forecast in Seattle because they change the whole ten days almost hourly. Why do they bother? I have noticed that hurricanes tend to be named after women, hmmmmmm, I'm with Lilly, I have a few choice names too and they're not female names either!

    Great post, as always, Ugich!

  8. Great post!

    "The various city agencies have suitably incomplete road projects, all dug up, to ensure maximum flooding." So true- we see this everywhere!

    I dread the thought of what will happen if the prediction ( based on what exactly, I wonder?) about July 24 comes true.

  9. The Aila-connect struck me, too, as a funny irony, but the reports of my friends and family and their sufferings in the post-cyclone inaction by the authorities make it a very bitter irony.