At the end of July, when the India Meteorological Department finally gave up on this year’s monsoon and predicted a partial drought for 2012, the skies perversely opened up over many parts of India and the stories about floods took the front pages. Paradoxically, as it happens year after year, the news stories about flooding were juxtaposed with news analysis of the consequences of a failed monsoon.
For the India Meteorological Department, its rational forecasts of the monsoon come with a serious statistical problem. The Met office admits to only 53 per cent accuracy in its predictions. In a will-it or won’t-it game, that rate of probability is little better than grandma’s faith. As recently as 2009, when India went through a severe drought, the Met office had predicted a near normal season. So, our traditional calendars continue to reign. They indeed illustrate the great divide between our Indias of the English-language and of the vernacular.
In April this year, the Met office forecast another close-to-normal monsoon for India and the coming of the dark clouds in the first week of June. The clouds did come, but with little rain. And, as July progressed with bleak monsoon averages, many Indian states wrote to the union government for special financial packages to fight the drought. Economists predicted drastic drops in growth indicators. But in Karnataka, the government ordered prayers for rain across 34,000 temples of the state.
On July 27, the Muzrai Department, of religious and charitable endowments, got the temples under its control to offer prayers to the Vedic deity Varuna, the god of rains. The simultaneous prayers in thousands of temples cost the government Rs170 million, infuriating its critics and rationalists. But the state Bharatiya Janata Party government also had unexpected though tacit backing. Mysore’s St Philomena’s Church, one of the oldest cathedrals in the state, held its own prayers for rain, which were attended by devout Christians. One opposition party, Janata Dal (Secular), offered a pooja at Talacauvery — the birth place of the River Cauvery — to seek rain.
For the English-language media of the subcontinent, there are two seasons of the monsoon: the southwest monsoon, from June through September, and the northeast monsoon, from the end of September to December. For vernacular India, there are many rains with ancient names. In the Vontikoppal Panchanga (traditional calendar) that we follow in my home for our festival dates, there are 16 rains. According to our Panchanga, we are now receiving Ashlesha rains, in the period between August 2 to August 16. If this phase fails, we are to get Makha rains, from August 16 to August 30. The Panchanga predicts that it will rain from August 16 to August 20 and again on August 28 and 29. The Met office has reason, perhaps, but the Panchanga gives hope.
For the United Progressive Alliance coalition government, already under siege by a slew of scandals and a growing sense of frustration and helplessness, the failing rains would have meant further erosion of support ahead of a crucial election year. More than half of the population in India labours in the fields and survives on such yields. The country’s agriculture is largely rain fed and for the poor in the villages, the failure of the monsoon means hunger and disease. In the absence of a rational water management policy, that could plan storage and control supply of water to balance drought with floods, what else could India’s 600 million do but look up to the skies for an answer to their prayers? If there is no god of the rains, then there ought to be one.
But the prayers have already been answered, it seems. Many dams in the south are filling up rapidly and the Ganga in the north was close to overflowing. There have been floods in Arunachal and Assam. And newspapers — still gathering data and stories of suffering because of the would-be drought — are publishing pictures of submerged roads and bridges alongside analytical features on dry fields and distressed migration. The monsoon works by a wanton muse. It can be a news editor’s nightmare.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2012.