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Indian Meteorological Department – What to make of them?

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), which forecasts weather patterns in India, has for long been a liability to the government, as well as to the citizens. For many of us, who still remember the old monopoly days of Doordarshan, where the last five minutes of the daily news was devoted to weather – it was a practical joke that whatever the forecast was – we could be sure of opposite to happen. However, the recent performance of the IMD has been chequered to say the least.

First, let me give the credit where it is due. IMD correctly forecast the cyclone “hudhud” in October 2014, which helped the Andhra Pradesh and Odisha administrations to take adequate precautions. Likewise, IMD also correctly forecast cyclonic storm “nilofer” in the western coast of India, also in October 2014. Also, periodic warnings given to the fishermen community have saved countless lives over the years. Also, IMD has been successfully forecasting the weather patterns for the annual Amarnath Yatras.

However, the credibility of IMD takes a serious hit, when it comes to the forecast of monsoons. We don’t need to emphasize enough that monsoons are critical to India for agriculture and farming. Hence, it becomes even more critical that IMD is held accountable. Let us consider this year – states of Odisha and West Bengal are now suffering flood like situation; where as parts of Karnataka and Maharasthra face drought like situation. Has the IMD been able to predict any of this? If not, what is the whole purpose of having the department. Marathwada region has seen innumerable number of farmer suicides over the years. Has the IMD made any recommendation to the government about declaring this area not suitable for agriculture – so that farmers can look for other avenues for their livelihood? There is no point in farmers waiting for rains, when there is little or no chance of any – if recent history is any indicator. IMD needs a serious dose of professionalism to be held accountable for their work.

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In addition, IMD’s performance in the last few years has not been a smooth sail either. As a snapshot, let us take a look at IMD’s monsoon predictions in 2014:

Region

For the Period

Forecast %

Actual Monsoon

Forecast made on

24th Apr 2014

9th June 2014

12th Aug 2014

All IndiaJune – September

95 ± 5

93± 4

87 ± 4

88

Northwest IndiaJune – September

85 ± 8

76 ± 8

79

Central IndiaJune – September

94 ± 8

89 ± 8

90

Northeast IndiaJune – September

99 ± 8

93 ± 8

88

Southern PeninsulaJune – September

93 ± 8

87 ± 8

93

 

We can draw these inferences from the above table:

  • The first forecast made in April 2014 was not met. Hence, farmers were failed by the IMD, in terms of any preparations they could make for the monsoon season
  • This forecast (made in April 2014) was only made at the national level – hence, it is of little use for farmers
  • The second forecast made in June 2014 has also not been very accurate, when you compare with the actual monsoon
  • The third forecast made in Aug 2014 has been fairly accurate only in Northwest and Central India. Whereas, it again missed accuracy in Northeast and South India.I accept that they are within the MoE, but even in the third month of monsoon if the IMD cannot make fairly accurate forecast, it is a sign of mediocrity.
  • Which brings me to the critical point – margin of error (MoE). A MoE of 8% is scandalous for any forecast. It is time for IMD to improve its technology or its statistical models to reduce the MoE. (the IMD uses a term “model error” instead of MoE)

This is an area where the government needs to invest more with the latest technologies and equipments. If not, at least the private players must be encouraged to get into this field to bring innovation. It is encouraging to see the emergence of skymetweather.com as another serious player. However, having a small sample of few years must not convince us that they are better than IMD.

IMD’s performance on weather monitoring and forecasts aside, its ability to detect early warnings of earthquakes is a big let-down. We can all agree that globally there has been little success in accurately predicting the earthquakes. However, based on reports, IMD is incapable of accurately measuring the “scale and characteristics of an earthquake” after the event. This is the reason why we heard vague statements by IMD officials after the recent Nepal earthquake about “multiple aftershocks possible” – without giving the scale or magnitude of these aftershocks.

This brings us to the point of organizational mess in IMD. IMD, as an organization, is part of the Ministry of Earth Sciences. At the same time, a department in IMD, the “Environmental Meteorology Unit” is part of Ministry of Environment and Forests. IMD also gives crucial support in giving meteorological information to the civil aviation sector. To facilitate this task, they need to work with Ministry of Civil Aviation. There is another department providing service of “positional astronomy”. If you are wondering what this is, do not worry, you have company. Among other tasks, this department publishes “Rashtriya Panchang” in 14 languages in India. Now, why any government needs to be involved in the business of publishing panchangs is beyond me. We can appreciate working in a matrix structure, reporting to various ministries – but in government institutions, this usually means more bureaucracy and more problems.

PS: The skeptic me also doesn’t rule out political interference in 2014. With impending elections, IMD may have forced to predict normal monsoon. But this will remain a wild guess, till we have solid evidence to back it up.

Source: Most of the information in this report is available on- www.imd.gov.in

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