India’s Monsoon Predicament

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India’s Monsoon Predicament

Sunday, 28 July 2019 | Kumar Chellappan

India’s Monsoon Predicament

Monsoon in India is just another proof of its geographical plurality. While it is a tropical atmospheric phenomenon, the truth is that the monsoon has become weaker and haphazard over the decades, writes Kumar Chellappan

There has been a spate of floods in Assam as Brahmaputra is at its full fury. The disaster management units as well as the daredevil soldiers of the Indian Army are on high alert/standby to assist the administrations in rescue and relief operations. The television news channels have deployed their camera crew along the banks of the overflowing river to capture the exclusive and distinct visuals of Nature’s fury and human helplessness.

The same news bulletins carry reports of drought in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, with visuals of dried up river beds, that now bear strong resemblance to deserts and a long queue of women walking with plastic pots on their heads (and hands) in search of this precious resource that would quench their thirst and meet their daily needs. There are stories highlighting the agony of farmers, who are possibly facing the worst drought in many years. In Madurai, the temple city of Tamil Nadu, water tankers and tractors fitted with GPS and sensors supply water to the local population. The GPS and the sensors are precautions taken by the local officials to ensure that the water is not pilfered by the truck and tractor drivers. Yes, water has become a precious commodity in the State. There were a couple of murders in Tamil Nadu over the sharing of water drawn out from village wells.

Simultaneous drought and flood situations in different parts of the country is nothing new. This has become an annual ritual. When Karnataka sneezes because of shortage of water in Kaveri River, it is Tamil Nadu which gets the cold. If there is no water in Kaveri, farming operations in the five fertile districts of Thanjavur, Thiruvaroor, Nagapattinam, Cuddalore and Thiruchirappalli go haywire. Availability of water in Kaveri depends on the quantity of Monsoon rain received by the catchment areas in Karnataka and Kerala. If the monsoon, to be precise, the South West monsoon fails, it generates not only misery for the farmers but a series of spats between politicians in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Political historians like N Kalyanasundaram always stand by the dictum that politics in Tamil Nadu has been an extension of cinema since the advent of the Dravidian parties. And the Dravidian leaders have always proved that right. The ruling AIADMK is criticised by the opposition DMK for the former’s failure to get Kaveri water from Karnataka where a Congress government is in place. Though the DMK and the Congress are in alliance, Stalin, the DMK chief never blames the Grand Old Party for its refusal to release the water due to Tamil Nadu.

But that being that, the weather phenomenon by the name of monsoon is unique to the Indian subcontinent. It is this monsoon that is spread over six months across the length and breadth of the country that fills the coffers with grain and ‘gold’. Whenever the monsoon fails to make it in time, life in farms and factories comes to a standstill. India’s share market too is dependent on the monsoon showers. The vagaries of the monsoon decide the winner in the bout between bears and bulls.

The word monsoon comes from Arabic. It is the anglicised version of mausim which means season. It has been known since the seventeenth century when Edmund Halley, the then secretary of the Royal Society and the man who found the comet, produced a remarkable monsoon flow chart. Though the monsoon winds constitute one of the greatest weather systems on earth (and an enormous amount of research has been carried out since), many questions remain shrouded in mystery. “It is like the human brain. We know it and yet we don’t,” writes Alexander Frater, the famous British travel writer in his book “Chasing The Monsoon”. Frater travelled from Kanyakumari to Mumbai and then to New Delhi and from there to Meghalaya’s Cherrapunji, the then wettest place on earth.

This weather phenomenon was known to Indians, not by the word coined by the colonial masters, but from much long before. Kalidasa, the greatest ever poet and dramatist the subcontinent has produced and who is believed to have lived between the 4th and 5th century CE has written a khanda kavya (minor poem) by name Ritusamhara in which he has described the six seasons — grishma (summer), varsha (monsoon/rains), sarat (autumn), hemanta (cool), sisira (winter) and vasanta (spring).

“The six seasons that constitute this mini-epic have been divided into six cantos and Kalidasa explains each climatic condition by elaborating the behaviour of two lovers to the prevailing weather conditions. Only a person who has first-hand knowledge about these seasons could compose such a master piece,” says S Rameshan Nair, winner of this year’s Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry.

Nair describes how varsha is portrayed by Kalidasa. “The rains hit us like the sound produced by the hoofs of a galloping battle horse, which stand out in its rhythm and style...”

This is substantiated by Indologist Dr S Kalyanaraman, author of the seven volume, Saraswathi Civilisation, a work that details the tracing and tracking of the mythological river by the same name. “India is blessed with the Himalayas, the largest water tower in the world. It is growing taller by 1 cm every year due to the plate continental drift with Indian plate jutting into Eurasian plate and causing the ongoing dynamics of Himalayas’ growth,” says Dr Kalyanaraman.

Rameshan Nair and his poetess wife Rema reminiscence their childhood when no drought conditions existed in Kerala. “By mid May of every year, monsoon rains would hit and cover the entire Kerala stretch like galloping horses. We always had copious rainfall accompanied by lightening and thunder. These rains would last till the end of Karkkadaka (the Malayalam month equivalent to Sravana),” says Rema, whose poems on nature are a treat to the soul.

Though Tamil Nadu, sans any major rivers other than Thamarabharani, was hot and humid, the seasons in the province were enjoyable, according to Dr Nanditha Krishna, director, CPR Centre for Environmental Studies. “The Madras summer was harsh those days too but it was bearable. The sea breeze from Bay of Bengal ensured that the temperature remained within limits. But the ever expanding Chennai Metropolitan area and the high rise buildings do not allow the sea breeze to set in the city anymore and we face the worst humidity for months,” says Dr Krishna.

While Dr Krishna, Kalyanaraman and Rameshan Nair are unanimous in their view that the monsoon has lost its sting over the last few decades because of urbanisation, concretisation and massive deforestation, atmospheric scientists disagree. “Monsoon is a tropical atmospheric phenomenon. Any small changes in the atmospheric or ocean states such as temperature or wind will lead to dramatic changes in weather pattern over tropics, whereas that is not the case with mid-latitude weather events over USA or Europe. Hence, tropical atmosphere is highly unpredictable” says Dr S Abhilash, Institute of Atmospheric Sciences, Cochin University of Science and Technology.

The truth is that the monsoon has become weaker and haphazard over the decades. “Earlier, the rainfall was well distributed within the four months of monsoon season. Now we receive the same amount of rainfall but the active rainy days have decreased with short spells of intense rainfall followed by extended break during which subdued rainfall activity is seen. That’s why we experience torrential downpours which ravaged Mumbai, Chennai and parts of Kerala in a single day,” says Abhilash. He also pointed out the inherent variability in the monsoon that we see today.

John Peruvanthanam, an environmental activist in Kerala says the weakening of monsoon began with the destruction of the dense jungles of the State. “Kerala’s jungle canopy was almost 35 per cent and this had acted as a catalyst for the precipitation. Destruction of forests for hydro-electric projects, cultivation of cash crops like rubber and encroachments led to the depletion of the canopy and this has played havoc with the weather pattern,” says Peruvanthanam.

Kerala’s Bharata Puzha, popularly known as River Nila, the banks of which saw the creation of some of the all time great literary works and art forms in the state, has almost dried up. This river originates from Western Ghats, described once as the eternal jungles. “If you want to know the reasons behind the changes in South India’s weather pattern, please read ‘The Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel” prepared by Prof Madhav Gadgil and his team of scientists. Irreversible damage has been done to the ecology of South India which has destroyed not only the dense jungles and wild animals but flora and fauna. This has upset the rhythm of Monsoon,” said Murali Parappuram, well known author and journalist. We can also blame El Nino, a state of the ocean somewhere in Pacific for fluctuations in Monsoon pattern.

The fact is that there is acute water shortage in most parts of the country. Though policy makers suggest rain water harvesting as an option, it would only be a piecemeal arrangement. Our problem lies with water management. “A country blessed with the Himalayas, the water tower, cannot have any water problem because the water can move into every part of the nation by gravity from the heights of over 24000 ft. The northern monsoon continues to enrich the waters of the tower because every drop of rain which falls on the Himalayas turns into snow and ice, as frozen sacred waters,” said Dr Kalynaraman, who heads Saraswathi Research Centre, a Chennai based think tank on water.

He wants the Central Government to take up the project to inter-link the major rivers of the country so that the flood waters of north India could be transferred to the water deficit regions through a network of canals. This would be permanent solution to India’s water scarcity. Please remember that States like Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra reel under drought even as the Godavari River discharges 2500 TMC ft to 5000 TMC ft water into the Bay of Bengal in a normal year.

Man’s instinct to survival has led him to find out solutions to tame the drought. Some of the best brains in India have developed scintillating solutions to counter the water scarcity. Scientists of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT-M) have developed an innovation by which water can be generated from thin air.

Ramesh Kumar Soni, a young engineering graduate who joined the IIT-M for his PhD was greatly affected by what he saw of water scarcity in Chennai and elsewhere. His research work yielded an Atmospheric Water Generator which captures moisture available in the air. “Atmospheric air has water content at any given point of time and this is what we work on,” shares Soni. The AWG developed by Soni has many advantages including energy efficiency. “It consumes just 0.3 to 0.5 units power for producing one litre water,” says Soni, who has launched a company by name VayuJal Technologies based in the IIT-M Research Park. An AWG that produces 30 litres per day water costs Rs 50,000.

Prof Sundara Rama Prabhu, head of the alternative energy and nanotechnology laboratory, IIT-M and his team of young scientists have developed a number of technologies based on nano materials to clean the Cooum River and Buckingham canal in Chennai. The project to set up a major water purification plant based on nanotechnology would cost less that Rs 300 crore. This writer had attended a demonstration by Prof Rama Prabhu when he purified the highly polluted water collected from Cooum River and transformed it into potable water.

National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), a research laboratory under the Ministry of Earth Sciences is helping the people of Lakshadweep by offering them drinking water desalinated using the Low Temperature Thermal Desalination Technology. There is something unique about these innovations. So far, no one from the government of Tamil Nadu has approached these people or their establishments with a request to know more details about these innovations. It’s a pity that despite our technologists having the know-how to address the water shortage, the administrative and political will appears to be missing.

“Never ever find a permanent solution to any issues plaguing the people. These problems should last so that we would remain relevant,” a Communist leader was heard telling his acolyte in one of the Malayalam films shot some three decades ago. Could that be a case here? We hope not.

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