After issuing avalanche warnings in army’s meteorological centre at the outset of his career, Sonam Lotus is a celebrity in Kashmir for his apt weather predictions. On one soaked afternoon, Bilal Handoo meets the man to understand his metrological methods
Season’s second shower is relentlessly lashing Kashmir. In face of downpour, Jhelum continues to play pranks. From green to orange and from orange to red, they say, Jhelum is changing colours like never before. Amid all this, a man who rose to become the poster boy of Valley’s weather is busy attending frantic calls at his Ram Bagh office.
“No, no. Don’t postpone your son’s marriage,” assures the man to some caller from New Delhi. “Weather is improving a day after tomorrow. Go ahead with your marriage preparations.”
As the call ends, the man spreads a deep smile before blurting out: “Now, you can see how people pin their trust on us. Given the uncertain nature of Valley’s weather, they schedule their marriages after seeking weather updates from us.”
He is Sonam Lotus – the man who has now become the household name in Kashmir. Though known for his ‘accurate’ weather forecast, Lotus is fast turning out to be a ‘marriage consultant’ in valley. “It has almost become a routine for me to answer scores of such calls,” says Lotus, as he bursts into occasional laughter bouts.
But in these grim times when flood panic is playing loud at public psyche, Lotus says, he predicts weather by keeping the public sensibility in mind.
Most of his predictions are bang on the target. This has in turn created a ‘celebrity cult’ of this official whose roots lie in 60kms away from the main town of Leh. Hailing from Shara village of Ladakh, Lotus was nursed and nourished by his deaf and dumb sister. Over the years, he did his MPhil in Physics from Jammu University before beginning his dream run in 2005 as weatherman.
From 2006 to 2007, Lotus kept issuing avalanche warnings as forecast official in Ministry of Defence’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). His performance soon landed him in valley as top weatherman.
He was posted as Director Indian Metrological Department (IMD) Srinagar on May 13, 2008 and since then he is having an ‘amazing’ run of his office. Lotus is the fourteenth Director of IMD Srinagar.
His longest tenure as MeT Chief at IMD Srinagar has already broken the record set by Jagdish Singh, who headed the department during turbulent times from 1988 to 1993. The reason behind his long tenure seems his meticulous weather brain, which has already made him a household name.
At his office, frequent phone calls are continuously derailing his talk. “No, no. I am not the only one who should be credited for the success,” he speaks to a new caller, who congratulates him for predicting another accurate weather calendar. “I am the merely face of my team.”
Lotus is heading a team of 44 officials who keep monitoring weather activity 24/7. “We follow a special operation procedure [SOP],” says Lotus. “Climatological section, data archival section, historical data section, weather section and other sections in IMD work in close coordination to forecast weather.”
The SOP, which Lotus and his team daily follows involves monitoring and collecting the computerised weather data. The team regularly observes wind speed and direction, pressure and other weather parameters. “There is something called Numerical Weather Prediction Product [NWP],” he informs. “It is the end result of all weather parameters.”
After zeroing in on NWP, Lotus rings his head office in New Delhi daily. After receiving feedback, a quick team briefing follows. “In those daily briefings, we discuss and deliberate on the public impact of our weather forecast.”
After taking all inputs into consideration, MeT department dispatches mail to all departments in valley and press notes to media.
The confidence in the team has peaked up after a ‘C’ Band 500-km range Doppler radar was installed recently at IMD Srinagar. The machine provides advance forecasts about heavy rains, cloud bursts, snowfalls and avalanches. Lotus says the machine will help in accurate weather forecasting up to a maximum of six hours as its range would be only 100 kms.
During one of those days when his team comes up with grave weather forecast, Lotus couldn’t help but sounds like a doomsayer!
He already sounded like one when September floods unleashed nature’s fury over Kashmir last year. As most of his weather predictions turned true, panic in public became palpable. “But no weatherman can be hundred per cent correct,” he says. “Our prediction is only 70 to 80 per cent correct and that too for few days. No weatherman can predict weather on a stretch.”
During summers, he says, MeT department’s prediction often departs from the usual forecast. Lotus blames gradual temperature rise and localised cloud development for this off-track weather prediction.
Amid all this, as 2015 spring remains soaking in Valley, flood clouds still seem hovering around. March 2015 ended up by recording 300ml rain, 65 ml less than the record set by March 1983 with 365ml recorded rains. “March is otherwise the wettest month of the year,” Lotus says. “But yes, two successive western disturbances in March 2015 did trigger second flood panic in less than seven months.”
This much quoted “western disturbance” is the term used in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal to describe an extra tropical storm (a localized phenomena with moisture usually carried in the upper atmosphere). It originates in the Mediterranean that brings sudden winter rain and snow to the north western parts of the Indian subcontinent. Moisture, he says, sometimes shed as rain when the storm system encounters the Himalayas.
In 2014 September floods, the same western disturbances originated in Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. This, he says, collectively led to the worsening of weather situation. “Weather requirement is different in Kashmir,” he says. “It is highly uncertain.”
Keeping the same uncertain weather conditions in view, Lotus issued a weather warning to fruit growers in March 2015, cautioning them to shelve off pesticide spraying till the clouds wither away. But then, some fruit growers went ahead and later rued. It is this accurate weather predictability that makes many say: “Love him, hate him, but you can’t ignore him!”
And now, spillover of his popularity has reached outside Kashmir as well. Every day, scores of calls from many Indian states buzz his office, inquiring about weather mood in valley. Tourists continuously stay in his touch while moving in or out of valley. This makes one believe that Lotus is now a MeT director-cum-marriage consultant-cum-travel agent!
It was after consulting him that hundreds of Kashmir-bound tourists cancelled their proposed visit after Jhelum started swelling in March 2015.
But many tourism players termed his weather prediction highly “exaggerated”. As flak over his forecast continued, he was subjected to internet troll and spoof. This forced him to lodge a complaint in police station against the persons running ‘fake Facebook accounts’ on his name.
On one of his ‘fake’ Facebook accounts, many were alarmed to read this: Govt forces MeT Department to say that “No flood threat to Kashmir Valley”.
He was quick to denounce the comment. “I am a responsible person and a public figure,” he said, “and I will neither dare to post messages that can offend others and nor I can mislead people by giving wrong information.”
Online parody didn’t end there. In fact someone wrote: “Weatherman Lotus suspended for links to Western Disturbances.” But Lotus appears at peace amid all this parody.
And then in one of those flood review meetings inside Srinagar’s Banquet Hall, Lotus was at the centre of attraction when Javid Mustafa Mir, State Revenue Minister expressed his desire in front of everyone: “Who’s this Sonam Lotus? I want to meet the man, whose name is on everyone’s lips?” As Lotus smilingly rose from his chair, Mir said: “What’s up on weather front?”
Between the lines, Lotus – a namesake of water flower – replied: “Just soaking, sir!”