Bengaluru: More and more states in India are seeking the assistance of private companies for “finer” weather forecast data instead of completely relying on what the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) provides.
Last month, the state of Kerala joined a host of other states — including Odisha, Maharashtra and Karnataka — to avail the services of private weather monitoring agencies to help predict natural disasters, such as the floods that caused massive destruction in the state in the last two years.
Kerala has engaged Skymet Weather, IBM Weather Company and Earth Networks on a one-year pilot project at around Rs 1 crore for finer services to “augment” the IMD data and help the state tackle disasters such as floods and droughts better, say officials in the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA).
Shekhar Kuriakose, KSDMA member secretary, told ThePrint that the central agency has not been able to provide alerts at the taluka (block) level and this has critically impeded disaster management.
“We will be using data from these private players to augment forecasts. We are not doing away completely with the IMD data. IMD services will continue to be used. There are certain things we wanted from IMD which they are unable to provide, but private companies are able to give it to us. Kerala is demanding much more finer services,” said Kuriakose.
Private players offer more accurate weather predictions than IMD and release user-friendly updated data faster. These systems help measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, wind direction and rainfall accurately every hour, transmit and publish the data quickly, gaining an edge over IMD, according to KSDMA officials who didn’t wish to be named.
Through this pilot project, Kerala expects more specific data. For instance, when an orange alert is issued for a district, such as a vast district like Idukki, it would need to narrow down the data, Kuriakose said. That is where private players can help with their numerous weather stations, he said.
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IMD Director General Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, however, said his department has been providing all the required data to states in accordance with the guidelines of the Government of India.
“We provide data as required by different states. We have to understand that the science of weather and climate is non-linear. It is a developing science across the world, but we do feel there is scope for improvement — for all agencies to give better forecasts,” Mohapatra said.
Kerala’s issues with IMD
Kerala’s move to partner private players is not new. It began in 2018 after floods ravaged the state, and then again in 2019.
In 2018, over 350 persons lost their lives in the floods and the government estimated a loss of close to Rs 19,512 crore worth of property. Last year, floods in the state left 121 persons dead.
This time, the Pinarayi Vijayan government didn’t want to risk relying solely on IMD predictions and decided to follow other states in contracting private agencies as well.
The KSDMA official said IMD had promised to set up new weather stations in the state but didn’t follow through.
“We had asked IMD to increase the number of weather stations. They asked for land, we gave it to them, but at the end of the day nothing happened. We are looking at more granular data from them,” Kuriakose said.
The government had asked IMD to set up 256 weather stations. The IMD agreed to put up 100, for which 100 sites were selected. But finally, IMD said it will put up 73 stations, promising that 15 will be operational before the monsoons. There were delays in that as well, but now they have been made operational, said a Kerala government official who didn’t wish to be named.
However, Mohapatra said the IMD intends to keep its promise of fixing 100 Automated Weather Stations (AWS) across Kerala.
“We have a fixed criteria as to where AWS have to be fixed. While offering our service we do not compromise on quality. We don’t establish observatories just like that. Some of the locations provided by the Kerala government are not adequate for our requirement. Will it work if we fix an AWS near a building to monitor wind speed?” the director general asked.
But Kuriakose said “15 is too small a number for our requirements”. Further, only five of these stations are able to provide live data, he added.
The private companies have 100 weather stations in Kerala, “so what stops us from using the data”, he said.
On this, IMD’s most senior official said India is a democratic country and nobody can stop anyone from using other services. “We only ask the private agencies to complement our work, not compete with us as that is what creates a healthy environment,” DG Mohapatra said.
Karnataka says states should help with weather forecasts
In Karnataka, which is among the states where the services of private forecasters are being availed, the State Natural Disaster Management Centre director G.S. Srinivasa Reddy agreed that the IMD has not set up enough AWSs across the country.
“IMD has around 3,000 monitoring centres across the country. We in Karnataka alone have 6,000 centres. Even the small stations they have in Karnataka, IMD is unable to maintain them. They have a different protocol on maintenance,” he said.
“Though IMD is a central agency, probably states also should step up and help in weather forecasting and management. It is not possible for IMD alone to monitor,” Reddy added.
Karnataka has been taking weather prediction data inputs from ISRO’s Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad on a regular basis for at least five years. It has also engaged the services of Earth Networks for lightning monitoring.
“We only take data from Earth Networks, the processing of the data is done by the KSDMC. We have to point out that Karnataka may be the only state that has weather data available up to the gram panchayat level,” he said.
What analysts say: ‘failure of central department’
Kochi-based environmental activist and advocate Harish Vasudevan said IMD should provide better data for Kerala because all those in the fringe areas, including fisherfolk, are the ones who are affected by climate change on a day-to-day basis.
“Each warning system should be accurate. If they don’t warn when it is needed, that will affect. If they warn without proper information about the threat, the livelihood of these fisherfolk is affected,” he said.
Vasudevan said Kerala is more affected by the failure of the IMD to build more AWSs than its late predictions.
Citing the example of IBM-run application Windy, Vasudevan said the site provides more accurate information than IMD as they have double the number of weather monitoring stations than the government agency.
The activist said investment in weather prediction is as important for the country as investing in defence systems.
“We are forced to do this. Kerala, like other states, is going through its worst economic crisis in its history. Kerala need not invest in this ‘defence mechanism’, but, despite this, if the government is setting aside funds for the private sector for climate predictions, it only shows failure on the part of the central department,” he said.
However, Chennai-based weather blogger K. Srikanth, whose weather updates helped people immensely during the 2015 Chennai rains, is critical of Kerala completely relying on private players.
He said it was too early for Kerala to rely on private players as India’s weather forecast companies have not established themselves yet. “The credentials of such companies need to be seen. Unlike in the US where many companies have been for several decades working and have proven themselves, India is still young,” he said.
“If you look at the last few years of forecast that Skymet has put out, it is not different from the one IMD has,” Srikanth told ThePrint.
He does, however, believe that more progressive state governments are trying to strike a balance by using data from private weather companies as these also are more technology savvy and quicker in response compared to IMD.
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