Chasing an eccentric monsoon

Published: Sunday 15 August 1993

FEW WOULD disagree that the monsoon in India is almost unparalleled in beauty, but not many realise the subtle nuances in the workings of nature that makes this season possible. These curious processes of nature continue to remain an enigma for the scientific community; nevertheless, we can draw parallels between nature's quaint ways and our own workings.

If we compare the mechanics of heat transfer resulting from huge temperature differentials in human-made factories with the small temperature differences in nature that result in something as breathtaking as the monsoon, the latter is nothing short of art, not to speak of energy efficiency. The sheer virtuosity with which clouds are formed, the way they move across the oceans and finally the ferocity with which they erupt into metal shafts of grey water, reveal an entire process that is amazing. And scientists still have a long, long way to go for a full understanding of this extraordinary phenomenon. Some 300,000 million tonnes of water come pouring down over India every year because of this phenomenon -- some 1,500 times the total weight of all the foodgrains we produce every year. The monsoon in India, following as it does on the heels of the sweltering summer, is distinct from the monotonous rains in the West and is more than just a welcome relief.

The season occupies a central position in India's economy, as the entire agricultural sector depends on it. This sector now includes processing, packaging and marketing of food plus a variety of agro-based industries. This is why the monsoon can influence the entire social and economic climate of the country.

Perhaps it is this centrality of the season that has traditionally evoked in the Indian mind its most enduring images: the greening of the parched earth signifying fertility and rejuvenation, the thunder that echoes the sound of "wild elephants dashing against some proud fortress", the crying of the chataka bird symbolising yearning and fidelity and the dancing peacocks.

But these images are traditional and were extolled even in Kalidasa's time. Today, much as one admires these metaphors, what is perhaps most striking about the monsoon is that one is always chasing it, just as in AD 5000. There is little that scientists or farmers have been able to do when the monsoon has betrayed the nation by failing to appear on time or altogether. Efforts, however, are on to predict monsoons more accurately to make maximum use of them to the national economy. In today's rugged and practical metaphors, the traditional ones seem romantically obsolete. Our yearning for a good monsoon is more related now to accurate forecasting, buffer stocks and balance of payments. What isn't funny, however, is that monsoon prediction is still an uncertain exercise, despite leaps in forecasting techniques. This means that crops, water and electricity supplies depend almost entirely on the vagaries of the monsoon. Traditional monsoon metaphors may have changed, but our concerns have not.

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