Major media outlets in Kerala have come under heavy criticism for their misleading reports regarding cyclone Ockhi.
Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi, the largest-circulated Malayalam newspapers, and Asianet News, the Malayalam news channel with the largest viewership were among those who published demonstrably false reports regarding the time at which Kerala received a warning from the central agencies regarding the cyclone.
Cyclone Ockhi hit the southern parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on Thursday, 30 November. Heavy rains and strong winds wreaked havoc in the two states, and have claimed 19 lives so far as per reports.
Weather forecast from the India Meteorological Department until 29 November made no mention about a cyclone hitting Kerala, and a cyclone warning for Kerala was issued only on 30 November – the day the cyclone hit the two southern States.
Even in an IMD press release issued at 10 am on 30 November, there was a cyclone alert for Lakshadweep and not for Tamil Nadu or Kerala. In another press release issued two and a half hours later, the IMD gave a cyclone alert for south Kerala, the adjoining districts of Tamil Nadu and Lakshadweep Islands.
All these did not stop Malayala Manorama from claiming in its report that Kerala had received warnings regarding a likely cyclone on 29 November itself, and that it was ignored. Ironically enough, the newspaper’s own box items said that there was no cyclone warning for Kerala till 30 November noon.
(Malayala Manorama box item which says: "November 30, morning 8.00: Depression becomes deep depression and moves to Kanyakumari region. Cyclone alert for Lakshadweep. The path and direction of the depression is 170 km to the South-West. No cyclone alert for Kerala.")
Mathrubhumi said, “Even though there were indications from days before that the Ockhi cyclone would pass near Kerala, the government and the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority didn’t get to know of it. The State did not understand the seriousness of the situation beforehand, and became vigilant only after the wind developed.”
Asianet News went further, saying "See this note of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) along with the weather forecast on Wednesday (29 November). It says that the Ockhi cyclone would form near Kanyakumari at about 8.30 am on Thursday, 30 November.”
Accompanying this description was a visual of the All India Weekly Weather Report of the IMD for the week 23-29 November. The report contains an outline of the significant weather features in India and a meteorological analysis for the past week, along with “Meteorological Analysis as on 30 November 2017”.
This IMD report that the Asianet News channel showed was issued on 30 November, and not on 29 November as the channel claimed.
(Excerpt from the All India Weekly Weather Report of 30 November 2017 which Asianet News showed, but quickly scrolled over with a wrong description.)
The channel added: “The note also says that this is moving in the north-western direction, towards Lakshadweep. A similar cyclone warning was given by the IMD yesterday (30 November) as well. The weather forecast note brought out by the Department on 23 November for the next two weeks also hints at the possibility of a cyclone."
The IMD’s press release at 10 am on 30 November contained a cyclone alert for Lakshadweep Islands. For Kerala, the warning was: “Squally winds reaching 55-65 kmph gusting to 75 kmph very likely along & off South Kerala during next 48 hours and along & off south Tamilnadu during next 24 hours.”
As for the 23 November report, this is what it said: "Cyclogenesis: The low pressure area over southeast & adjoining eastcentral Bay of Bengal is likely to shift west-southwestwards gradually and become more marked over southwest Bay of Bengal & neighbourhood around 26th November."
Any cyclone warning for Kerala was missing in the report, but Asianet News seems to have found one nevertheless.
While Malayala Manorama has been for very long been opposed to the Left, Asianet News is owned by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Rajya Sabha MP and Vice-Chairman of the BJP-led NDA in Kerala. The reports blaming the Kerala government's agencies are suspected to be part of a political agenda to attack the Left-led government in the State.
Advisories sent by fax on 29 November by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to the governments of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Lakshadweep and Puducherry which Newsclick has gained access to show that there was no cyclone warning until 30 November. The advisories talk about "depression" and not cyclone.
Warnings in the last advisory sent on 29 November, at 8 pm (see picture below) say that there would be "heavy to very heavy rainfall" in south Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Lakshadweep for the subsequent 24 hours, and "squally winds reaching 45-55 kmph gusting to 65 kmph" along and off south Tamil Nadu, south Kerala and Lakshadweep during the subsequent 48 hours. Sea conditions would be rough for 48 hours, said the advisory.
A report in The Business Line, carried online on 29 November and published in print on 30 November said:
“With a depression lurking to the south of Kanyakumari and west of Sri Lanka, the stage is set for a rare weather system of near-cyclonic strength to develop in the Comorin Sea/Lakshadweep Sea. The India Met Department (IMD) expects the system to ramp up to a deep depression (next only to cyclone strength) in the Comorin Sea by Thursday, while tracking in a westnorthwest direction. This would see it graze the Kanyakumari-Nagercoil-Thiruvananthapuram coast before heading towards Lakshadweep. The IMD has issued heavy to very heavy rain forecast for select stations over the south Tamil Nadu and Kerala coasts and Lakshadweep over the next two days accompanied by warning to fishermen along these coasts.”
Kerala’s Fisheries Minister J Mercykutty Amma said that a warning had accordingly been issued to fishermen, but since such warnings which did not amount to cyclone alerts are issued quite routinely, it was ignored by many.
The Business Line report also mentioned predictions by agencies from abroad: “A number of other global models saw a powerful cyclone developing in the East-Central Arabian Sea (away from the Kerala coast) but turning towards east-north-east, guided by an incoming western disturbance.”
Official Indian agencies issued a cyclone warning for Kerala and Tamil Nadu only by noon on 30 November, and the State governments swung into action.
Alphons Kannanthanam, Union Minister of State for Tourism and IT, confirmed this when he told reporters: “It was only on November 30 at 12 pm that the state received the cyclone. Before the warning was issued, several boats had ventured into the sea. As such, a proper warning could not be issued to them.”
The reason why Ockhi could not be predicted like many other cyclonic storms on the eastern coast like Phailin, Hudhud and Lailai which were predicted 4-5 days in advance was explained by Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, head of services of IMD:
“It all depends on the birth and life cycle of the cyclone, and the place where it develops. Those on the eastern coast originate far from the coastline, around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and take a few days to reach the mainland. They can be forecast in advance. In this case, the cyclone originated at sea, west of Sri Lanka, and moved towards Lakshadweep, which is not very far away. Kerala and areas of Tamil Nadu got an ever lesser lead time, about one-and-a-half days,” Mohapatra told The Indian Express.
The Ockhi experience has prompted many observes to opine that the IMD should lower the bar it applies before it issues alerts. Even though this would increase instances of false alarms and raise costs, the possibility of severe weather phenomena resulting in losses of human lives could be reduced nevertheless.