MA­HA­RASH­TRA HAIL­STORMS Will IMD wake up?

Hail­storms have once again dam­aged crops in the drought­prone Marath­wada and Vi­darbha re­gions of Ma­ha­rash­tra as well as the cred­i­bil­ity of the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal De­part­ment

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FROM MARCH 14 to 16, 2017, heavy rain­fall and hail­storm struck the Marath­wada and Vi­darbha re­gions of Ma­ha­rash­tra, flat­ten­ing the rabi (win­ter) crop over thou­sands of hectares (ha). While the state gov­ern­ment is still as­sess­ing the losses, in­de­pen­dent weather fore­cast­ers say that seven of the eight dis­tricts of Marath­wada, and six of the 11 dis­tricts of Vi­darbha were af­fected. These dis­tricts in­clude drought-prone Beed, Latur, Os­man­abad, Nanded, Parb­hani, Ya­vat­mal, Chan­dra­pur, Gad­chi­roli, Buld­hana, Akola and Washim. Wheat, sorghum, chick­pea, grape and mango crops were hit.

“In Latur dis­trict alone, farm­land in 71 vil­lages has suf­fered crop losses. The worst af­fected talukas in­clude Deoni, Ud­gir, Ni­langa and Ausa,” says Sandi­pan Bad­gire, a farmer and so­cial ac­tivist from Son­wati vil­lage in Latur. Anil Paulkar, bureau chief of Divya Marathi, a Marathi daily, adds that at least 40,000 ha of agri­cul­tural land in Latur lost all of its crop. What makes the farm­ers’ suf­fer­ing worse is that no ad­vi­sory or warn­ing of the ap­proach­ing hail­storm was is­sued by the In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal De­part­ment (imd). “The rabi crop was al­most ready for har­vest. Had there been a prior weather warn­ing, some farm­ers, whose crops were ready, could have har­vested and saved them,” says Bad­gire.

Caught un­awares

imd ad­mits that it failed to fore­cast the hail­storm, but does not state why. “imd is­sued an ad­vi­sory on rain­fall and thun­der­storm. The lat­ter some­times leads to hail­storm. But no ad­vi­sory on hail­storm was is­sued,” says M Ra­jee­van, sec­re­tary, Union Min­istry of Earth Sciences. He adds that the thun­der­storm ad-

vi­sory was not suf­fi­cient to help farm­ers pro­tect their crops as they re­quire an ad­vance alert of two to three days.

The imd ad­vi­sory was not clear. For in­stance, the imd’s Agromet Ad­vi­sory Ser­vice Bul­letin for the state of Ma­ha­rash­tra fore­cast on March 14 that there would be rain­fall in the state till March 19. Marath­wada’s fore­cast for March 14-16 men­tioned “iso” mean­ing “iso­lated” or “rain at one or two places”. A sim­i­lar iso fore­cast was is­sued for Vi­darbha for March 15-16.

“The term ‘iso­lated rains’, of­ten used by the imd, is vague. For in­stance, be­tween March 14 and March 16, al­most all of Marath­wada, and west and south Vi­darbha re­ceived heavy rains and hail­storm. It was not lim­ited to one or two places,” says Ak­shay De­o­ras, an in­de­pen­dent weather fore­caster. He blames imd for not act­ing in time. “For at least a week in ad­vance, weather mod­els were giv­ing hints about fu­ture ac­tiv­ity in the Marath­wada and Vi­darbha re­gions. By March 12, the po­si­tion be­came crys­tal clear and, the very next day, an ad­vi­sory was is­sued to over 100,000 farm­ers who re­ceive weather up­dates from our ser­vice via sms and What­sApp,” he says.

Ma­ha­rash­tra is no stranger to hail­storms. A coun­try­wide anal­y­sis of hail­storms be­tween 1985 and 2015 by imd’s Pune of­fice shows that of all states, Ma­ha­rash­tra is the most prone to hail­storms in the country. The study ti­tled “Oc­cur­rence of hail storms and strate­gies to min­i­mize its ef­fect on crops”, pub­lished in the Jan­uary 2017 is­sue of mausam (imd’s quar­terly jour­nal), says there is a 91-95 per cent prob­a­bil­ity of hail­storms strik­ing the state. Dur­ing the study pe­riod (35 years), Ma­ha­rash­tra ex­pe­ri­enced max­i­mum hail­storm oc­cur­rences in 31 years, with 11 days in Fe­bru­ary and March, 2014. This was fol­lowed by six days in Fe­bru­ary 1986, March 1989 and Fe­bru­ary 2010 each. S Su­nitha Devi, di­rec­tor (weather sec­tion), imd Pune, and one of the au­thors of the study, adds, “From 2013, there is pro­longed per­sis­tence of hail­storms in the state, caus­ing ex­ten­sive dam­age.” “Pro­longed per­sis­tence” means that while hail­storms used to be “iso­lated events” af­fect­ing only a few talukas, they have started af­fect­ing a large area over sev­eral days in the past four years.

Since 2013, Marath­wada and Vi­darbha have ex­pe­ri­enced hail­storms ev­ery year dur­ing Fe­bru­ary and March, and have seen sub­stan­tial crop losses (see ‘Re­peated dam­age’). Hail­storms dur­ing these months are a nor­mal weather oc­cur­rence in Ma­ha­rash­tra, says De­o­ras, but two as­pects need fur­ther re­search. “Firstly, the in­creased in­ten­sity and the widen­ing spread of these hail­storms, which now af­fect 10-15 dis­tricts of the state. And sec­ondly, the in­creas­ing size of the hail, some­times as large as a small onion,” he ex­plains.

If Ma­ha­rash­tra’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to hail­storms has been well es­tab­lished, why did imd fail to fore­cast their oc­cur­rence? Ac­cord­ing to Ma­hesh Palawat of Skymet, a pri­vate weather fore­caster in In­dia, weather mod­els can help fore­cast the prob­a­bil­ity of a hail­storm in a re­gion, but it is not easy to pin­point the ex­act dis­tricts which will be af­fected. “imd has the best of tech­nol­ogy and is well equipped to study weather events. The pos­si­ble rea­son it did not is­sue a hail­storm alert is be­cause it is not an­swer­able to any­one. As pri­vate weather fore­cast­ers, we have to be ac­cu­rate with our fore­casts, or we can lose our clients,” he claims.

Farm­ers in the dark

Farm­ers in these re­gions have faced one cri­sis af­ter an­other in the past three years. Till the mon­soon of 2016, Marath­wada was wit­ness­ing an un­prece­dented drought. But good rains last year pro­vided some respite and farm­ers had a bumper pi­geon pea crop. “The pi­geon pea price has dropped from

1,200 per quin­tal (1 quin­tal equals 100 kg) to 4,000 per quin­tal. Soy­abean has fallen from 5,000 a quin­tal to 1,800 a quin­tal,” says Divya Marathi’s Paulkar. “Farm­ers were al­ready un­der stress and the re­cent hail­storm has com­pounded their mis­ery.”

The Cen­tre’s mKisan por­tal, launched in July 2013, is meant for quick dis­sem­i­na­tion of weather and crop-re­lated in­for­ma­tion. As of May 2015, how­ever, only one mil­lion farm­ers in Ma­ha­rash­tra had sub­scribed to the ser­vice. “At present, a lit­tle over 5 mil­lion farm­ers re­ceive up­dates through sms. These are only 20 per cent of more than 25 mil­lion farm­ers in the state,” says De­o­ras.

Anil Ban­sode, a state agri­cul­tural of­fi­cer from Wardha dis­trict in Vi­darbha, points to­wards the need for pro­vid­ing lo­ca­tion­spe­cific weather fore­casts to farm­ers to help min­imise crop dam­age. “Sev­eral hor­ti­cul­ture farm­ers in Nashik (north­west Ma­ha­rash­tra) use a hail net to pro­tect their crops from hail­storm. How­ever, they need prior in­for­ma­tion,” he says. Devi agrees that hail nets can save the stand­ing crop, but small farm­ers need gov­ern­ment sup­port to pur­chase the nets.

Ex­perts call for hav­ing an ad­e­quate radar net­work to fore­cast the oc­cur­rence of hail­storms over larger ar­eas. Ra­jee­van says the gov­ern­ment is work­ing in the same di­rec­tion. “imd is pre­par­ing new tools to pre­dict hail­storms. By next year, we should be fully equipped to fore­cast them,” he as­sures. imd is in­stalling a Dop­pler Weather Radar in So­la­pur which will help fore­cast hail­storms in Marath­wada, and has rec­ti­fied an­other in Nag­pur, which had been dys­func­tional for the past few years.

While tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture need to be strength­ened, the met de­part­ment must also en­sure quick dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion to farm­ers.

The gov­ern­ment ad­mits that the thun­der­storm ad­vi­sory was not suf­fi­cient to help farm­ers pro­tect their crops as they re­quire an ad­vance weather alert of at least three days

A study by In­dia Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal De­part­ment shows that of all states in the country, Ma­ha­rash­tra is most prone to hail­storms

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