New Delhi: Iswara Behera, a rice farmer in eastern India, is praying to the Hindu god Indra for divine intervention. He doesn’t trust the government’s weather gurus, who predict normal monsoon rains this season.
Behera, who shares a mud house with his wife and four children in Kualu, a village in Orissa, has been let down before. Feeble forecasting left his crops vulnerable last year and helped put him Rs13,000 in debt. “I have more faith in Indra than in the government’s forecast,” says Behera, of the Hindu weather deity who is often depicted riding an elephant. “The gods won’t let me down.”
India’s 132-year-old meteorological department (Met) has miscalculated the June-September monsoon in three of the past five years, endangering farm production in a country where agriculture accounts for one-fifth of the $854 billion (Rs34.5 trillion) economy. While the bureau is spending Rs920 crore to broaden its
data sources, critics say that isn’t enough.
In God’s Hands: People move through a flooded road after heavy rains in Mumbai. India’s monsoon rains are reviving after a weak phase since mid-July and will gather momentum, the Met department has said.
“We are way behind,” says S.K. Dash, a physics professor at the Indian Institute of Technology’s Centre for Atmospheric Science in New Delhi. “Forecasting in countries such as the US and the UK is definitely much better.”
More than 75% of India’s rain is monsoonal, leaving most of India’s 234 million farmers reliant on the moisture-laden winds that sweep in from the Bay of Bengal.
No weather watchers are 100% correct, says Dash, who has studied monsoons for three decades. Forecasters worldwide struggle to give localized predictions in South Asia—especially for three and 10-day periods—because governments in the region don’t collect enough information, he says.
While more data-gathering equipment will help, India’s weather bureau also needs to switch from statistical forecasting to modern models based on physics and math, Dash says. The bureau is placing 55 Doppler radars around the country to better identify rain clouds and wind strength, says Akhilesh Gupta, adviser to the Union science and technology minister.
It will also add 500 automatic weather stations, which record temperature, rainfall, wind speed and humidity, and 1,200 rain gauges by the end of next year, Gupta says. “We are bringing the weather to the people,” he says. “A country’s development is measured through the development of its weather service.”
Last year, the bureau said the monsoon would be “below average” and rainfall was normal. In 2004, precipitation was 13% below the “absolutely normal” rains predicted. The “normal” forecast in 2002 preceded India’s worst drought since 1987 and helped slow economic growth to a decade-low 4%.
Forecasters also failed to foresee Mumbai’s worst downpour in a century, which killed more than 500 people in 2005.
The weather office “does the forecast on a macro level and that’s not local enough,” says Sumita Kale, chief economist at Indicus Analytics, a policy researcher in Delhi.
For farmers who are illiterate or too poor to own radios that deliver forecasts, celestial insurance is the only option.
In Kanteikulia, about 200km west of Bhubaneswar, Orissa, about 1,200 villagers are heading for the summit of Girigovardhan mountain. “We have no idea about weather forecasting,” says Benudhar Pradhan, 56, a rice farmer, as the air fills with the smell of ghee. “We perform rites on the peak of the mountain because we think the fragrance will reach the god fast and satisfy him.”
This season, Indra may have turned against his supplicants. Flooding across northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal has destroyed crops and forced about 30 million people to flee their homes, according to Unicef. Almost 1,500 people have died in India alone.
No country does a better job of seasonal forecasting than India, says Madhavan Rajeevan, director at the weather bureau’s National Climate Centre in Pune. Still, more accurate medium and short-range predictions will help farmers choose the right seed and fertilizer for local conditions, he says.
The bureau should tap scientists across the country, says Prashant Goswami, who heads monsoon research at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation in Bangalore.
“Currently we are acting like six blind men with an elephant,” Goswami says. “We should treat weather forecasting as a national issue.”
Throughout India’s biggest farming states - Bihar, Maharashtra, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh - villagers aren’t waiting for such changes.
In Kualu, Behera has joined about 600 other farmers to watch two priests chanting prayers over a sacred fire to Indra.
“The village astrologer recommends a person who sits with us during the rituals, which last for six hours,” says Bita Panigrahi, 60, a priest. “We three of us fast on that day.”
Villagers also sacrifice as many as 30 goats during the season in hopes of consistent rains and superior harvests.
After crop failures last year, Behera needs to borrow at least Rs7,000 for cultivation, he said. He doesn’t doubt he is beseeching the right authority.
“The government can use the most modern machines to make predictions,” Behera says. “Finally, god is the one who decides whether we get rain or not.”
Thomas Kutty Abraham in Mumbai and Jay Shankar in Bangalore also contributed to this story.