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Monsoon blues

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Nilgiri Hills in Tamil Nadu, India. Valli Ravindran under a Creative Commons Licence

It’s monsoon-time again. Children all over India adore the rain, especially when it comes after a blistering summer, bringing us that longed-for respite from the blazing sun. But in the last few years all of us are watching global warming making itself felt in tangible, visibly upsetting forms.

I’ve been chasing the monsoon, a bit. It generally arrives here in the Nilgiris, the ‘blue mountains’ of southern India, around 1 June. It’s lovely to watch the parched earth be radically transformed before your eyes, as the scorched, brown countryside turns green again. It’s a miracle to behold. I followed it to Mumbai last week and Ahmedabad on Thursday. Both cities were paralysed by the rain; waist-high water brought traffic and pedestrians to a standstill.

This year in the Nilgiris, the monsoon arrived with a bang, quite literally. The thunder and lightning in the hills always put on a magnificent show. This first monsoon display was frightening. Our stone house shook. I wondered if it was my imagination, but then my husband phoned from the office 8 kilometres away to say that terrified colleagues had screamed, thinking the office building had been hit by lightning.

The rain came down in an epic deluge. We had 48 hours without electricity after trees came crashing down, cutting the power lines. This week again, there was another massive storm which left our town without power for 8 full days. While no electricity is a nuisance we can live with, there are other impacts of the monsoon that are a matter of life and death.

Weather experts have told farmers to expect very poor rainfall this year. Due to global warming, we can expect sharp bursts of excessive rain followed by long dry spells. While this sounds manageable on paper, the fact is, our farmers have age-old cropping patterns learnt through the centuries, agricultural experience that their forebears passed down from generation to generation.

A completely unpredictable rainfall pattern throws everything out of sync. Farmers who plough and till the soil to prepare it for planting cannot predict the weather. The excessively heavy rain, coming at the wrong time, washes away seeds or causes them to rot.

My daughter visited the home of migrant workers who were celebrating the birth of a child. Not one person cursed the Mumbai floods. Every single person with rural roots rejoiced that the monsoon had arrived and it would be planting time in their villages.

‘The rain is needed for the crops,’ said Sunanda, who works as a maid in 6 houses daily to make her living. ‘Thank God it’s finally come, in spite of the radio and TV people saying the monsoon would fail.’

There’s a lesson in there somewhere. Our monsoons coincide with World Environment Day on 5 June. And every single person, urban or rural, watches the rain and remembers the old days when everything worked like clockwork. Even people who are illiterate have heard some radio or television programme talking about global warming and hearing the stark warnings about soaring temperatures and erratic seasons.

Now, people cannot help correlating the news they hear with what is actually happening around them. Now, global warming means crop failure, starvation, their families suffering in the villages and more people being forced to migrate to cities in search of elusive jobs.

Clichéd or not, there’s the silver lining. Environmental groups in India must make use of this new reality, erratic rain and its effect on food security, to bring home the power of climate change and educate school kids and others. It’s especially doable in India and China and other agriculture-based economies.

So let’s wrench something good out of a dreadfully pessimistic scenario.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu.

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