Could a timely warning have saved fishermen's lives in Cyclone Ockhi?

IMD made a delay in either issuing a cyclone warning or in communicating it to Kerala.

 |  5-minute read |   03-12-2017
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Cyclone Ockhi, which has battered Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the past few days, could weaken by Tuesday, The Indian Express quoted the Regional Specialised Meteorological Center as saying on Sunday, December 3. However, the loss of lives of several fishermen and reports of many of them having gone missing have raised tempers and several questions. 

An IMD forecast said the scale of Cylone Ockhi has been reduced from “very severe” to “severe” for Monday. The cyclone, on Sunday, was moving towards Maharashtra and Gujarat, after ravaging Kerala, Lakshdweep and Tamil Nadu.

Heavy rain in these states has led to uprooting of trees and disruption of communication lines. In Kerala, nine people have died so far. Several areas have no electricity and train services have been disturbed.

While by Saturday, 531 fishermen, of which 393 were from Kerala, had been rescued, on Sunday, there were reports of 17 more being rescued.

Four aircraft of the Air Force, three of the Navy, 10 naval ships and several Coast Guard ships have been pressed into the search and rescue operations. Several boats from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have reached Maharashtra coasts, where chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has promised them all help.

Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan had pressed the Centre to declare the cyclone a national calamity, which would mean release of central funds for rescue and rehabilitation.

On Sunday, Union minister Alphons Kannanthanam said that while Ockhi could not be declared a national calamity as there was “no such scheme for the Centre to do the same, the Union government had already given necessary relief funds to the Kerala government.

But if the rescue efforts are as coordinated as is being claimed, why are the Kerala fishermen protesting and alleging government neglect?

Protests in Kerala

Kerala has had to bear the worst of cyclone Ochki, with hundreds of fishermen still reported missing. According to reports, fishermen and their families have blamed the state government for the “tardy” manner in which the rescue operations were conducted.

On Sunday, the fishermen's community decided to launch “their own rescue operations”, and 55 boats ventured into the sea to search for the missing men.

Residents staged protests in coastal areas such as Alappuzha and Chellanam over the delay in rescuing stranded fishermen. No information had been received by Sunday evening about the 33 fishermen from Punthura, who had ventured into the sea five days ago.

But this is not the only grievance the residents of coastal Kerala have.

The fisherfolk claim they were not warned in time about the approaching cyclone, and they would not have ventured into the sea had they known about it.

Delayed warning

On December 1, hundreds of families in Thiruvananthapuram blocked national highways, protesting an alleged delay in issuing a cyclone warning. According to reports, technology to predict cyclones well in advance exists, but the IMD only issued an alert on November 30, Thursday, while the fishermen had already left for the seas on Wednesday.

Other reports quoted the Kerala fisheries department as saying that they received the warnings of a cyclone by the IMD on Thursday afternoon, but the weather department has claimed that the alert was raised on Wednesday.

Dr K Satidevi from IMD said, “India Meteorological Department had issued a cyclone warning on November 29 (Wednesday) to the chief secretaries of all the states concerned through fax,” The News Minute reported.

However, according to the report, even the Kerala CM had told mediapersons on Friday: “We received warning about the cyclone only on Thursday afternoon. Prior to that there was a warning but not for a cyclone.”

Earlier, Union tourism minister Alphons Kannanthanam had supported Kerala’s claim of a late warning, but on Sunday, he said the central agencies had “given necessary alerts on November 28 and 29”.

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However, according to the India Meteorological Department’s website, an “orange alert” regarding cyclone Ockhi was issued on November 30. As per IMD guidelines, an orange alert for a cyclone should be issued “at least 24 hours in advance of the expected commencement of adverse weather over the coastal areas.”

That a delay took place seems obvious. What is not clear is whether the delay happened in issuing the warning or communicating it to Kerala.

It was this delay that sent thousands of fishermen to rough seas, leading to loss of lives, property, and necessitating a massive search and rescue operation by our defence forces.

IMD has been in eye of storm before this

This is not the first time that the IMD has faced flak for its less than accurate predictions.

In July this year, a farmer from Beed in Maharashtra had filed a police complaint against Mumbai's Colaba and Pune weather stations, for their “misleading” rain forecast. The farmer had claimed that he undertook sowing operations based on the IMD’s prediction of rainfall, but scanty showers thereafter had caused him financial losses. He had accused the weather bureau of “cheating farmers in connivance with seed and fertiliser companies”.

Data from the last 16 years has shown that IMD’s first monsoon forecast was mostly at a large variance from actual rainfall values. In a country where the monsoon determines everything from GDP, inflation to the stock market’s performance, such unreliability is troublesome.

Need for changes in IMD

The IMD’s predictions have the potential to impact not just the country’s economy, but as the Ockhi calamity shows, the lives of thousands of people. In such a scenario, the annual monsoon contest of waiting to see whether the IMD or the private company Skymet gets predictions right should ring alarm bells.

The central government needs to invest in the weather bureau better, so that preventable and predictable natural calamities do not end up becoming major tragedies.  

Also read: Rahul Gandhi, like grandmother Indira, is the leader India needs

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