A looming drought, drying crops and an amateur weatherman’s tall claims
Panjabrao Dakh's claims put him and farmers at odds with the science of weather prediction.
In a year with an underwhelming Monsoon and a looming drought, farmers in Maharashtra are now stuck in a toxic triad of doubt over the Government weather agencies, a self-styled weatherman's misinformation and the dying crops that resulted from it.
While an already delayed Monsoon gave a cold shoulder to Maharashtra in June, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Maharashtra’s Agriculture Department had issued advisories to the farmers in the state, asking them to hold off on sowing until substantial rainfall is recorded. The onset did not occur until the last week of June. However, Panjabrao Dakh, a self-proclaimed weather 'expert' in the state, with access to 'crores' of farmers, by then had released his forecast that there would be rainfall all across Maharashtra by June 15. Many believed him and what followed was the disastrous first month for the Kharif crops in the state.
Several farmers in Marathwada and Vidarbha, who went ahead with sowing in June only for the seeds to get ruined, have blamed it on Dakh. However, while he 'promised' rainfall in the month of June in his earlier forecasts, Dakh now blatantly says that he always predicted it was going to rain well in July and then September-October, and not in June.
To Dakh's credit, he did ask the farmers to sow 'when their fields were wet enough'. However, in an old (June 2023) video, he can be heard telling the farmers that all rainfall in June can be considered to be Monsoon rainfall, when in reality, monsoon did not make it to the state until the last week of June and the authorised agencies kept warning the farmers about premature sowing.
Although a well-known name in Maharashtra’s farming community, Dakh is not the first, nor would he be the last self-proclaimed expert on weather, who has even claimed at times that he can make better weather predictions than the weather agencies that employ actual scientists.
“They all [IMD and others] kept on saying that there is no rainfall, there will be drought, but I always said, it will rain in September,” Dakh said, speaking to Indie Journal, while several districts in the state are in fact reeling with drought and crop failures.
Meanwhile, even though the IMD had also predicted that monsoon revival is on the cards, it is hardly good news for the farmers, whose crops have as good as burned due to the lack of rainfall in August.
So if Dakh gets his forcasts right sometimes and they are in line with IMD’s some of the times, why are his methods seen as problematic?
“The problem with Dakh and other self-proclaimed weather experts is that they cannot give the reasoning behind these forecasts. He cannot ascertain why he reached a particular prediction and why it turned out to be right or wrong and he cannot give these reasons, because he does not have the research to back it," says a veteran journalist who has been covering weather for a long time.
#Maharashtra has received very poor #monsoon rainfall in June 2023. Most districts have received deficient or large deficient rainfall.— Dr Akshay Deoras (@akshaydeoras) June 30, 2023
After 1923 (20.5 mm) & 2014 (30.4 mm), June 2023 rainfall in Marathwada (41.3 mm) is the third lowest since 1901. #Drought pic.twitter.com/teaFjEVkML
While making predictions related to monsoon, IMD uses 14 climate models, including that of its own. It relies on both climate models and statistical models, with a higher emphasis on the former.
“Moreover, weather predictions for Maharashtra are not just dependent on the conditions over Maharashtra. The conditions over the Bay of Bengal matter, the rainfall that we have predicted in September over Vidarbha and Marathwada has a lot to do with the systems forming over the Bay of Bengal. Westerly winds come into factor sometimes. Many factors come together to determine whether it will rain in Maharashtra or not, and if yes where,” explains Anupam Kashyapi, Weather Head at IMD Pune.
While IMD gives a scientific methodology backing their weather predictions, Dakh, who claims that he has been studying weather since 1998, said that he bases his forecasts on three things - satellite images, signs in nature and references from some Puranas (scriptures).
“Weather forecasts that do not follow scientific methods can be viewed in light of how people see astrology,” the journalist says.
“There is always a 50-50 chance of the prediction being right or wrong. There will either be normal rainfall, or not. The behaviour of the monsoon over India is such that in a period of 10 years, 70 percent of the time, it will be normal. People remember when these people are correct,” the journalist adds.
In reality, predicting weather is a complex process that goes beyond studying satellite maps. “The weather agencies have developed mathematical models after years of hardwork and observations, that help them make predictions. Even then, IMD gives a range. It only makes basic region-wise predictions when it sees a system brewing. The sub-divisional forecast comes after a system is formed and then in a couple of days comes the district-wise forecast,” he explains.
KS Hosalikar, Scientist and Head, IMD Pune, had once said in a media workshop that although the agency can predict the weather for the next six months if need be, it does not do it as multiple factors come into play.
However, even when it was not raining in August this year, Dakh still promised farmers that it would rain soon.
“When no one else was saying that it would rain, I did,” Dakh said. He also spoke of the different signs in nature that he uses to predict rainfall.
“Before sunset, around 5 pm, the sky gets red towards the west. I have told farmers that when that happens, it will rain in the next three days. It happened a couple of days ago and before I said anything, the farmers themselves messaged me and said the sky is red, it will rain now. Also, when a rainbow appears, it rains in two days and then there is no rainfall in the next 10 days,” Dakh says.
He also says that since it was Adhik Maas this year (an intercalated month in the Hindu calendar), it did not rain in the first two months of the season, but it will rain in September-October.
However, he does not provide any scientific reasoning behind how he reads these signs.
“People have been using natural signs to predict rainfall for ages. However, it is very localised and cannot be used for widespread rainfall predictions. But whatever else Dakh says, it is very unscientific,” says Prof. Ghanashyam Darne of Savitri Jyotirao Samaj Shikshan Sanstha in Yavatmal.
Weather plays an important role in determining agricultural success, especially in a country like India where it is largely dependent on rainfall. Advancements in meteorology aim at helping farmers plan and manage their crops.
However, Dakh 'insists' that he believes the farmer should not be dependent on him or anyone else, including official weather agencies, and 'follow the signs of nature'.
“I have said to them that they must remember, the sowing will be around June 27-28 every year. It will rain between July 10 and 15 in Maharashtra,” Dakh says.
However, IMD’s Rainfall Statistics of India Report - 2015 shows “Konkan and Goa and Madhya Maharashtra also experienced rainfall deficiency from the third week of June to the third week of July. The situation was more severe in the case of Marathwada where this duration prolonged and extended up to the first week of August.”.
This excerpt from a 2015 report is important because 2015 was also an El Niño year and the state experienced drought during the same. Although IMD says that no two El Niño years can be expected to be exactly similar, this data shows the impact of various weather systems on the weather patterns in the state. Hence, asking farmers to believe that it will rain in the state between July 10 and 15 no matter what could prove to be dangerous, especially in light of the changing weather patterns, owing to climate change.
The lack of systems forming in the month of August this year could in fact be attributed to El Niño, as per IMD scientists. This year, the Maharashtra Government has declared that 1,000 revenue circles in the state have received less than 50 percent of the required rainfall. Agricultural activists fear that farmers could face losses as large as 50 percent of the total cultivated area.
At the beginning of this year, Dakh’s unscientific predictions failed several farmers in Vidarbha and Marathwada, who sowed despite government advisory against it. However, Dakh does not seem to have taken any accountability for the same, blaming the delay on Cyclone Biparjoy. In fact, contradicting his recorded statements, he now claims that he always said it was not going to rain in June.
“He is not the only one. There are many forecasters like him. They have no accountability, IMD has it,” Kashyapi says.
Why is it that people still make fun of IMD’s forecasts and so many farmers believe in Dakh then?
“Dakh speaks to people in the language that they understand and relate to. He is a farmer himself, he understands crops and he uses that to convince the farmers. Farmers do not look at the statistics. IMD needs to go beyond its protocol and pay attention to outreach,” the senior journalist says.
It was not until recently that IMD scientists started speaking to people in their language. IMD does have an Agricultural Meteorology division that has 19 centres across the state and issues advisories. However, Kashyapi does agree that there is still a gap between the organisation and the people. This is the gap that is filled by the likes of Dakh.
“The question that we should be asking is why are the farmers listening to an amateur weather forecaster like Dakh instead of an authorised agency like IMD,” says Sudhir Bindu of Shetkari Sanghatana, who hails from Parbhani district, the same as that of Dakh.
“Dakh is an amateur forecaster. Since 2017, he gained popularity since he began spreading awareness among people regarding weather forecast agencies, apps, etc. The efforts that he made gained him a fan following. But of course, since he does not have the scientific method and equipment required for forecasting, it is possible that his predictions were inaccurate this time,” Bindu says.
Darne adds that IMD often fails to give farmers localised forecasts. “For instance, IMD’s forecast says that it is going to rain heavily in isolated places in Yavatmal district. But which isolated places, the Yavatmal district is vast. Where exactly is it going to rain? People then turn to people like Dakh,” he says.
He adds that, however, this year, with Dakh’s failed forecasts at the beginning, there is a sentiment against him among farmers around Darne.
But Bindu says that blaming him for losses could be far-fetched as farming is a gamble and most farmers usually go about their predetermined routine irrespective of forecasts.
Darne shares that even though farming is like gambling, once sowing fails, it becomes almost impossible to salvage the crop. And that is why many farmers expressed anger against Dakh this year.
“Such forecasters must be brought under the frame of the anti-superstition law. The way we debunk people’s unscientific claims, we must also debunk unscientific forecasts. We must demand that such forecasters be regulated under law,” Darne says.
It is Dakh’s reach among the farmers that makes his questionable methods of forecasting more dangerous. He says he has around 1,200 WhatsApp groups, which have around 1,000 farmers each that he uses to disseminate his predictions. Through these, he says he reaches crores of farmers.
“And despite fairly accurate predictions, IMD still does not reach people,” the journalist says.
We have seen IMD's predictions play an important role not just for agriculture, but in cases of natural calamities like cloudbursts and cyclones as well. In fact, IMD gives accurate forecasts for the cyclones, that are increasingly affecting India's coastlines since the last few years, to the point of time and place of landfall. The organisation has received international accolades for these predictions. However, Dakh's aspersions on these have the power to create doubt in the minds of common people to such an extent, that it might someday even prove to be fatal in cases of natural disasters.
With the weather patterns changing rapidly and becoming more and more uncertain with climate change, the scientists themselves agree that they are also grappling to give out the most accurate predictions.
“What do meteorologists do? They are trying to understand how weather events take place and mathematically predict further events based on those observations. Scientists never claim that they understand it completely. They say they are still trying to understand,” the journalist says.
However, when asked how challenging he finds this, Dakh simply says not much. “I have been observing the weather since I was a child. I changed people’s perception towards IMD, I told them about satellite images. But if this satellite stops working one day, what should the farmer do? That is why, I show him how to make predictions using natural signs,” Dakh says proudly.