scientists unable to crack the mystery surrounding the red rain and a
series of other strange natural phenomena in Kerala, the possibility of
a big disaster like an earthquake is looming large on the people's minds.
A report by INDIA TODAY's Special Correspondent M.G. Radhakrishnan.
wells disappearing, undug wells appearingon their ownsheets
of red rain lashing and groves of trees rumbling as their monsoon green
turns into charred grey. Something has gone terribly wrong. Could it be
a signal of something worse to come? An earthquake perhaps? Or is it just
a colour coincidence, as one Lok Sabha MP chose to see it? Red rain, he
had said tongue-in-cheek, after the Reds' recent humiliating electoral
defeat. In God's Own Country, someone else said, anything is possible.
After centuries of advance, even the scientific community appears to be
agreed on that. Anything is possible. As theory after elusive theory comes
forth to account for the strange phenomenathe disappearing and the
appearing wells, the red rain, the burnt leavesthat parts of Kerala
have witnessed in the past two months, there's been little consensus on
what's been happening. And little comfort for those like retired school
master K. Gopinathan Pillai, who actually saw the dusty red raindrops
as he sipped his morning coffee in the verandah of his Bharanikkavu home
in Kollam district.
The red rain was first reported at Changanasserry in Kottayam district
on July 25. According to the locals, a loud sound like a thunderclap was
heard at around 5.30 a.m. accompanying which was a flash of light. What
followed was a three-hour spell of heavy rain, 15 minutes of which, they
claim, was a scarlet sheet. Following the rain, large tracts of trees
shed burnt leaves.
The Centre for Earth Sciences Studies (CESS) of Thiruvananthapuram, which
took samples of the rain for a probe, following a directive by the state
Government, first said it was meteoric dust. It claimed that a meteor
travelled from the west to the east and exploded towards the east of Madhumala
junction in Changanasserry. The burning meteor threw around 1,000 kg of
fine dust which came down as red rain. A week later, CESS changed its
stand after making a chemical and biological analysis of the water samples.
It said the red coloured cell structure was biological in nature and has
been tentatively identified as spores of some species of fungus. The spores
are being cultured to determine the exact species by the Tropical Botanical
Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI). The chemical analysis showed the
presence of various elements like carbon, silicon, calcium, magnesium,
aluminum, iron, sodium, potassium besides traces of phosphorous, titanium,
chromium, manganese, copper and nickel.
Yet to arrive at a conclusion, the CESS candidly admits that several questions
remain unanswered. What, for instance, had produced the huge quantity
of spores? Was the source local or alien? If alien, how was the mass transported
without getting disbursed over a larger area? And how were the spores
injected into the clouds? "While the cause of the colour in the rainfall
has been identified, finding the answers to these questions is what is
posing a challenge," says Dr M. Baba, director, CESS.
meteorologists at the Centre of Monsoon Studies have put forward a radically
different hypothesis for the coloured showers. According to them, the
fine dust blown into the Arabian sea from the deserts of West Asian countries
are colouring the Kerala rain. In a reported statement, Dr P.V. Joseph,
a former director with the Indian Meteorology Department (IMD), said the
dust-laden air from the Arabian dust-bowl moves southwards and turns east
over central Arabian Sea towards the Kerala coast. This, he says, "got
mixed with the monsoon rains".
no red rains have been reported anywhere in the country so far. At the
same time, however, the phenomenon is not unprecedented the world over.
A website called strangemag.com records three instances of red rain in
Europe, all in the 19th century. The information has been collected from
The American Journal of Science and Arts of 1819 and two books of the
same period, The Romance of Natural History (James Nisbet and Co) and
Strange Phenomena; A sourcebook of Unusual Natural Phenomena (William
A. Corliss). According to this data, red rains occurred in Naples, Italy
in 1818. And on analysis the water was found to have been composed of
silex, alimina, chrome, carbonmic acid and a cumbustible substance of
a carbonaceous nature. It was thought to be of "volcanic origin and
that the presence of chrome assimilates it with meteoric stones".
Against this background and the claim made by the locals that they saw
a flash and heard a strange sound are what appear to have prompted CESS
scientists to initially ascribe the cause to a meteoric explosion.
rain apart, another point of debate has been the disappearance and appearance
of wells. In the past couple of months, nearly 200 wells have reportedly
been covered up while several news ones have been formed with the earth
caving in in parts of Kerala. While none of these events has caused any
damage or injury, many fear that these, especially the well collapse,
are precursors to some natural disaster. Particularly so since Kerala
experienced an earthquake in December last year which was of the highest
intensity (5 on Richter scale) recorded in the state. The quake was followed
by more than 50 minor after shocks in almost all parts of the state for
the next two months.
Although the earthquake or the subsequent microsiesmic activity did not
result in any deaths, thousands of buildings suffered cracks of various
magnitudes. With the state falling under seismic zone. 3, scientists do
not rule out the possibility of more earthquakes in the future. According
to seismologists, many pre-existing geological faults in the area have
CESS, which led the investigation into the wall-collapse as well, has
ruled out any reason for panic but it has been cautious in its remarks.
"In the absence of ground vibrations or other perceptible sounds
felt in the region during the period of well collapse incidents, it is
difficult to relate them immediately to earthquake phenomenon," a
report submitted to the Government said. The report, prepared by CESS,
the Geological Survey of India (GSI), the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB)
and state departments, has ascribed the well collapse to the type of well
lining, lithological conditions, rainfall intensity and ground water recharge.
Baba argues that there are more than 50 lakh wells in the state, many
of which routinely cave in during monsoons. "Now every incident gets
reported. That is all," he says. According to him Kerala had heavier
rains during this monsoon than last year. As per the report, the state
received about 2000 mm more rainfall this year than the previous year.
Increased ground water recharge during the rains which builds up differential
water pressure and pore pressure at the bottom result in collapse of wells,
elaborates the report. Moreover, the affected wells were mainly located
in coastal, sandy, alluvial tracts which were less cohesive. As for the
threat of earthquakes, Baba says Kerala can have only minor ones, which
at worst can cause minor cracks in buildings. "With the construction
pattern Kerala has, no quake is likely to cause a heavy toll," he
explains. "Remember it is not the quake but the buildings which kill
However, not all scientists are willing to dismiss the phenomena as ordinary.
"Serious tectonic activities are going on in this region and the
incidents are their manifestations. Whether it would lead to a major earthquake
is not sure," says John Mathai, a seismologist with CESS who did
a detailed study of the well collapse. According to him, more than the
rains it is the stress built up by increased tectonic activity which led
to the caving in of the wells. Differences in water table was one important
precursor to the 1975 quake in China's Yanshan belt which killed 6.5 lakh
people, he adds.
Dr P.K. Thampy, former director of CESS and geologist, prefers to play
it safe. "Available scientific knowledge cannot say if these phenomena
are going to cause any quake. Neither can we say that they will not cause
them." With the prediction of earthquakes still largely impossible,
he feels even constant monitoring may not fully help in averting such
a disaster. "All we can do is to evolve ways to mitigate the damage
and manage the disaster," he says. Under the circumstances, he couldn't
be more right.