Millennium Post

‘Days of ridiculing weatherman are over’

The Indian meteorological department (IMD) has been the object of ridicule for long. With a series of inaccurate predictions, including its failure to predict three droughts (2002, 2004 and 2009), the department’s reputation was in tatters. 12 October, a black day for Odisha, changed all that, inadvertently becoming a red-letter day for the Met department.

Often questioned for credibility of its weather forecasts, IMD correctly predicted that cyclone Phailin, which hit the Odisha coast that evening, would be a ‘very severe cyclone’ and refused to categorise it as a ‘super cyclone’, thus raising its stock both among the critics and observers.

In a freewheeling interview, IMD director-general L S Rathore says the last five years have been crucial for the department, as it invested heavily in technology and manpower. Admitting that the prediction about Phailin has been hugely encouraging for the IMD staff, he says it has managed to change popular perception about the Met. Excerpts:

Could IMD’s accurate prediction on cyclone Phailin be the turning point for it, as it has often been ridiculed for its wayward predictions?
I would not say the predictions on Phailin would be the turning point. An important milestone, yes, but over the last five years or so we have been predicting extreme weather conditions quite accurately. Our predictions on cyclone Neelam was accurate, and so it was with other cyclones. So, you see, there has been consistent improvement in our predictions. In terms of landfall errors, track of the cyclone (and) its intensity, we have been nearly accurate.
In Phailin’s case we got plenty of lead time. We made the forecast on 8 October for 12 October. Our precise forecast for the last three days, before the cyclone made landfall, was very encouraging. It was encouraging for the staff and for the people.
The most encouraging thing for us was the way we stood our ground in the wake of predictions of western agencies, which said Phailin would be a super-cyclone like Katrina.

The pressure on you must have been immense with western agencies accusing IMD of underplaying the cyclone. Did it cross your mind, at any point, that you could be wrong?
The pressure was immense. But one has to take into consideration the implications of overblown forecasts: if you cause unnecessary inconvenience to people (in terms of evacuation) and then your forecast is wrong, they would not believe you the next time. Evacuating even a 1 km stretch means a huge cost to the government, so we had to be careful. As far as weather forecast is concerned, there is huge scope for divergence – all inputs are taken before it is done, including forecasts of foreign agencies.  
But the final call rests with the operational forecaster – and the forecast we made hit the bull’s eyes. We said five districts would be affected and that the landfall would take place at Gopalpur and Ganjam districts – that’s exactly what happened. Coming to your question, although we were under pressure, at no point of time did we think we could be wrong. We were certain of the inputs we generated and that was the reason we were talking to the public through the media at regular intervals. It was important to win confidence of the public, and we could have done that only if we were confident of our department. Had there been an iota of doubt I would not have been here talking to you.

Where did this confidence come from?
As I said earlier, there has been a consistent effort at making IMD predict better and with precision. So there has been an improvement in observation networks and the quality of data we process. Our satellite images have improved considerably. We have a faster communication and data exchange system, improved numerical modeling capabilities, skilled human resource capabilities, improved tools and techniques of forecasting and dissemination, and, lastly, excellent support and inter-ministerial collaboration.  
All of this has occurred over the last five years. The allocation of Rs 750 crore in the 11th five-year plan was of great help. We used the money in installing state-of-the-art doppler radars, automatic weather stations, automatic rain gauze and upper air systems. Also, the creation of a separate ministry of earth sciences helped.  

At such extreme weather events, we usually find zero coordination among different agencies. Was it different this time?

You have no idea the kind of coordination this kind of extreme weather event requires. Fortunately we were able to manage perfect coordination between different agencies involved. The national disaster management authority (NDMA) and IMD worked closely; I was in touch with NDMA chief Shashidhar Reddy throughout the period that the cyclone lasted – we would talk to each other almost six times a day.
Likewise, with the home secretary, the cabinet secretary and, of course, the state administration. While I was in touch with the chief secretary, my field officers were in touch with the district magistrates. We ensured there was no communication gap.

What’s on IMD’s agenda for its next phase of modernisation?
In the next phase we are going to buy more doppler radars, automatic weather stations, and micro-rain radars for Himalayan regions.

What went wrong with the Uttarakhand flash floods earlier this year? Did IMD issue warning in advance at the time?
The IMD had done its work (and) predicted heavy rainfall two days ahead of the deadly shower… Our forecast was issued much ahead in time.

Was the devastation a result of the state administration’s negligence then?
I would not say that. There was more rainfall in Himachal than in Uttarakhand – almost 45 cm of rain. In Uttarakhand, it rained only in Dehradun and the lower region. There was also no cloudburst, as was widely reported in the media then – the water is warm during a cloudburst, as opposed to cold, when this happened.
The actual cause was the breach of a dam in the upper Ganges region. This led to the flooding downstream. The ice melted, and this, coupled with rain, led to the disaster. It was not a meteorological disaster in any sense of the term. If people built their homes on the river (bed) what would the IMD do?

Where do you want to take IMD before you retire?
I am very keen on making possible block-level weather forecasts. I want to ensure this happens before I retire. Block-level forecasts will help farmers a lot.

Are the days of IMD jokes over?
Yes, the way we have overhauled the department in the last few years and the result we have achieved because of it, I think days of ridicule are over.

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