Down to Earth
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
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.
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