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An anxious India launches another round of the great monsoon prediction game

Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee
May the games begin.
By Devjyot Ghoshal
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As a parched country looks to the heavens for relief, an annual competition is already underway: forecasting the Indian monsoon.

First off the mark this season was Skymet Weather, India’s only private weather forecaster.

On April 11, Skymet said it expected above-normal rains this year. “According to Skymet Weather, Monsoon 2016 is likely to remain above than the normal at 105% (with an error margin of +/-4%) of the long period average (LPA) of 887 mm for the four-month period from June to September,” it said in a statement. The LPA is the average annual rainfall for the period between 1951 and 2000.

If Skymet’s predictions are accurate, they bode well for India’s rural economy, which is suffering the after-effects of two consecutive drought years. In 2014, monsoon delivered rains 12% below average, while in 2015 that deficit stood at 14%—a six-year low.

Not to be left behind, the Narendra Modi government has also announced its forecast, presumably based on inputs provided by the national weather forecaster, the India Meteorological Department (IMD). ”The El Nino condition is declining. It is expected that La Nina condition will takeover, and will perhaps favour a good monsoon this year,” agriculture secretary Shobhana K Patnaik said, also on April 11.

The 140-year-old IMD will officially announce its forecast later this month.

These predictions are a high-stakes affair—about 68% of India’s total arable land is rain-fed (pdf)—and both sides have a less than stellar track record.

Last year, for instance, Skymet, a 13-year-old startup, stuck its neck out predicting a normal monsoon even as the storied IMD estimated a deficient one. Eventually, the national forecaster was proven right and Skymet ate humble pie.

“We were off the mark…and we accept it with all humility,” GP Sharma, vice-president at Skymet, told Quartz last September. “We will analyse the data and the model that we used.”

Meanwhile, a triumphant IMD indulged in some good old chest thumping. “As of now, IMD alone has the infrastructure and experience to make long-range forecasts with a degree of accuracy in the country,” IMD director-general L S Rathore declared last September.

But that was last monsoon. For 2016, let the games begin.

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