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High-tech India-British monsoon experiment raises hopes & questions

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pic: PTIKochi: Girls enjoying the first monsoon rain in Kochi on Tuesday. PTI Photo (PTI6_7_2016_000132B) *** Local Caption ***

Bengaluru: A high-tech monsoon experiment in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) in which British scientists will release underwater robotic vehicles, called gliders, and monitor them through aircraft packed with instruments has been security cleared at the highest level, a senior government official has said – but questions still remain, reports IANS. The month-long air-sea campaign, slated to begin on June 24, will see the deployment of two ships, six gliders (diving to 500 metres every two hours) and eight floats (automated submersibles) that can rise and descend to 2,000 metres.

Together with the sophisticated instruments aboard a special aircraft, they will collect a range of atmospheric and oceanic data that the British scientists claim will help forecast the arrival and intensity of the Indian monsoon “more accurately than ever before.”

Besides the fact that BoB is strategically crucial for India, oceanography and meteorology (weather) are two of seven research areas considered by the government to be militarily “sensitive”. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had in 1975 stipulated that “investigations in these areas by foreigners or by foreign assisted programmes should be subjected to the most careful and comprehensive scrutiny” from the security angle before granting approval.


When asked to comment on the British initiative, Madhavan Rajeevan, secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), said it “has taken all the approvals and clearances from the highest level”. The $11 million project cost “is equally shared between MoES and Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)”, Rajeevan told this correspondent.

Foreign collaborations in ocean and weather science have always set off warning signals in India’s defence community due to past experiences. For instance, in 1964, the United States, under a weather programme called “Nomad,” placed an instrument “package” on a buoy anchored in the Bay of Bengal.

It was supposed to continuously record and transmit wind speed, temperature and other weather data. But the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) received the data only for four days and no one in IMD is sure about the fate of the package or if it had any other undisclosed mission.

Before Nomad, there was another collaborative programme under which the US sent an aircraft supposedly carrying equipment to collect weather data. The instrument-packed aircraft criss-crossed the subcontinent for eight weeks and returned to the US without sharing the data collected.

The Indian Ocean expedition in the mid-1960s, in which the US and India collaborated was another such project. Primary data collected was sent to the University of Hawaii for analysis and what Indian collaborators got was a basket-load of algae and sea weeds collected by the ship in the Arabian sea.