96% lightning deaths are in rural India; 77% of them are of farmers. A Ground Report from Bihar and UP

Despite technology that forecasts lightning strikes and mobile phone applications that pre-warn people, a large number of men and women in rural India are killed every year due to lightning. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh report the maximum casualties. Villagers continue to be ignorant about simple protective and preventive measures they can take.

Rahul JhaRahul Jha   6 July 2022 7:53 AM GMT

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96% lightning deaths are in rural India; 77% of them are of farmers. A Ground Report from Bihar and UP

Close to 2,500 lives are lost every year due to lightning in India. Photo credits: Pixabay, by arrangement 

Rampur Dera (Saharsa), Bihar

It all started at around 3 pm on June 19, when strong winds grew into a storm accompanied by thunder, lightning and rain. At that time, 42-year-old Tuntun Yadav and his younger brother were in an open field grazing their buffaloes. What followed was a horrible experience Tuntun said he could never forget.

"Suddenly there was a bright flash and the next thing I saw was my brother writhing in pain before he became motionless. He had burns all over his body," Tuntun, a resident of Rampur Dera village in Bihar's Saharsa district, told Gaon Connection.

हिंदी में यह खबर यहाँ पढ़ें

His brother Fuldar died as he was struck by lightning. Apart from Fuldar, there were 15 other people in Bihar who died of lightning strikes on that one day alone. According to the latest data presented by the state government's Information and Public Relations Department, in the month of June, in Bihar alone, 36 lives were lost that way.

About 500 kilometres away from Yadav's village, in Uttar Pradesh, similar deaths due to lightning were reported. As per news reports, last month in June, four people died of lightning strikes in Mirzapur district, while another four died in Ballia, three in Fatehpur, two in Kanpur, two in Varanasi and one in Prayagraj.

On june 19, a resident of Rampur Dera village, Sikandar Yadav, died due to lightning strike. Photo: Tejasavi Thakur

Also Read: At least 93 dead due to lightning in Bihar. Continuous heavy rainfall posing high flood risk; last year's flood victims still living under tarpaulins

Close to 2,500 lives are lost every year due to lightning in India. And the incidence of lighting is on the rise, which has been linked to climate change.

According to the India: Annual Lightning Report 2020-2021, there has been a 34 per cent rise in lightning strikes in the country between 2019-2020 and 2020-21. In Punjab it is up to 331 per cent; in Bihar it is 168 per cent, Haryana is up to 164 per cent, Puducherry 117 per cent, Himachal Pradesh 105 per cent, and West Bengal 100 per cent.

The report also pointed out that 96 per cent of all lightning strike deaths in India are in rural areas, and 77 per cent of those are of farmers. The lightning report has mapped entire lightning strikes over India and all 37 states and union territories, including their impact and detailed analysis.

According to the 2020-21 report, between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, Bihar tops the list of Indian states with highest casualty due to lighting strikes, followed by Uttar Pradesh (see bar graph).

Source: India: Annual Lightning Report 2020-2021

"Labourers, farmers and cattle grazers in rural areas are most vulnerable. But, the state government officials, who are sitting in offices, issue warnings either on social media or on mobile phone apps [applications]," Sanjay Srivastava, founder of New Delhi-based Climate Resilient Observing-Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), told Gaon Connection. "Therefore, those who cannot afford to be on social media or own a mobile phone have no access to such useful information that is desperately needed to save lives," he added.

Srivastava has been instrumental in putting together the 2020-21 lighting report. His organisation, CROPC, is a non-profit that works in collaboration with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to develop resilient mechanisms to forecast lightning and prevent deaths.

According to Srivastava, utilising the available scientific information on lightning and communicating it to the rural population continues to be a major challenge because of which villagers, such as Fuldar Yadav of Saharsa, continue to be killed by lightning strikes.

Rising incidence of lighting; poor awareness among villagers

As per the official data maintained by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on accidental deaths in the country, out of 7,405 accidental deaths attributable to forces of nature [between 2019-20], 38.6 per cent were due to lightning, 13 per cent due to floods and 10.5 per cent due to exposure to cold.

Despite this, a large chunk of the rural population is unaware of ways to save themselves during lighting events.

Also Read: Lightning kills more people than hurricanes, earthquakes and floods

Last week, on June 28, four people died due to lightning strikes in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh. One of them was 15-year-old Sadhna.

"At around 2:30 pm that day, a portion of the roof was leaking, bechaari bachchi (my innocent kid) got up to put a tumbler under the leaking roof as the heavy downpour was flooding the house. Suddenly, bijli (thunder) struck and she died on the spot," Ram Charan, 63-year-old grandfather of Sadhna, told Gaon Connection. The family lives in Dighuli village (Hallia block) in Mirzapur's Lalganj tehsil.

When asked if he had any knowledge about safety measures to be pursued during lightning strikes, the 63-year-old stated that he knew nothing.

"I've lived long enough but I have never seen anybody visiting the village to inform us about how to save innocent lives from lightning strikes. The doctors and vaigyanik (scientists) should know what to do in such cases, I am not educated to understand all this," he said.

However, Shivpratap Shukla, the additional district magistrate of Mirzapur told Gaon Connection that the government uses mass media platforms to run awareness campaigns in order to educate the rural inhabitants about the precautionary measures against lightning.

"We have got confirmed reports of two deaths by lightning from Lalganj and two deaths from Chunar tehsils. As per the administrative procedure, we are in the process of paying a compensation of Rs 400,000 to the kins of the deceased. We regularly broadcast radio programmes to raise awareness about prevention against lightning," Shukla said.

Source: NDMA

Better communication strategy at gram panchayat level needed

In his article titled Tribals & Marginalised Most Vulnerable To Lightning, Srivastava of CROPC, writes that an overwhelming majority of deaths by lightning from April 1 to June 15 in the year 2019 were reported from India's rural hinterland.

"...the death toll from 1st April till 15 June is more than 487 out of which 462 deaths (95%) were in rural areas followed by 25 deaths (5%) in urban areas or semi urban areas which has inherent protection," he wrote.

Also, the recent lighting report 2020-21 reveals that of the total deaths due to lighting, 68 per cent are of the tribal people.

Source: India: Annual Lightning Report 2020-2021

Srivastava said that people who die due to lightning strikes are the ones who were unable to access the government's initiatives aimed at raising awareness.

"The only way to ensure that those who need the weather forecasts and awareness programs receive the much needed information is to physically access these areas in India's hinterland which is home to more than 60 per cent of the country's population," he said.

Agreeing with Srivastava, Mahesh Palawat, vice president of meteorology and climate change at the private weather forecasting website SkymetWeather, stated that the entire procedure to raise awareness around lightning needs to be prepared for a gram panchayat [village council].

"We already have digital tools to forecast lightning. All that is needed to be done is that the village heads have to be assigned the role of the messenger. These people can download these applications on their phones and inform the villagers about an imminent threat of lightning strikes in the village," Palawat told Gaon Connection.

Source: NDMA

Pradhan Parthasarathy, assistant professor at the South Bihar Central University's Department of Environment, said, "Mass awareness in the rural, remote areas of the state [Bihar] is the only way to check these deaths. Using digital tools to spread awareness is inherently flawed with respect to the rural population," he reiterated.

"Sarpanchs (village council heads) and mukhiya (village heads) will have to be approached in order to gather the masses in rural areas and educate them about the precautions needed to prevent deaths due to lightning," Parthsarthy added.

Mobile apps for lighting forecast

The IMD as well as state governments, including the Bihar government, have come up with mobile phone applications to inform the masses about the threat of lightning in a certain geography.

In 2018, the IMD launched the 'Damini Lightning Alert' mobile phone application which is used for warning the user about the lightning on the basis of the user's location. Users can take stock of the lightning which occurred in the last five minutes, 10 minutes and 15 minutes on a map depicting the areas around the user's location.

Similarly, the Disaster Management Department of the Bihar government launched an application called 'Indravajra' in July, 2020.

However, distinct from the Damini application, the Bihar government's application informs the user about the threat of lightning by using the ringtone of the phone to alert the user.

"The Bihar government has created a mobile app named 'Indravajra'. Through this app, a warning message with an alarm tone is sent out to people about 40 to 45 minutes before the thunderstorm and lightning, within a radius of about 20 kilometres," Divyaraj, a social media executive working in the Bihar Disaster Management Department, told Gaon Connection. He also admitted that the question remained as to how many smartphone users were there in rural Bihar, especially farmers and labourers.

Also Read: Despite forecast warnings and mobile apps, 154 dead in 3 weeks due to lightning strikes in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand

Gaon Connection spoke with mukhiya (village head) of about 10 villages inside the embankments in Supaul district. Only one was aware of the state government's Indravajra app.

"Once in 2019, a seminar was organised by the Bihar government on thunderstorm and lighting. I also attended it. Villagers were told about the Indravajra and Damini apps. But how many of the villagers have mobile phones to use these apps," asked Roshan Jha of Laxminiya panchayat. "The government should make people aware of aakashiya bijli (lightning) by organising chaupals in villages every year. People should also be told about how to protect themselves during lightning," the mukhiya added.

The state government of Uttar Pradesh hasn't developed a separate application for lightning forecasts but regularly insists that people should use the IMD's Damini application to know about lightning weather updates.

Livestock died due to lightning strike in Marauna panchayat of Supaul district. Photo: Anuj Jha

Misplaced priorities

In September 2018, the Uttar Pradesh government launched a welfare scheme to prevent the incidence of deaths caused by lighting.

It was proposed that multiple measures such as setting up of lightning arresters [a device to safely direct the lightning bolt to the ground without causing damage to life or property], lightning safe shelters in the rural areas, and raising awareness campaigns in designated high risk areas be undertaken by the government.

"I was part of the team of experts which formulated this scheme but unfortunately the state government hasn't begun implementing it," Srivastava told Gaon Connection. "There is not even a single lightning safe shelter constructed in the state so far. The lighting arresters haven't been installed either. Despite the scientific information, the government is not acting upon it," he pointed out.

According to Srivastava, the government lacks a constructive approach. "The UP government has got Rs 2,700 crore from the National Disaster Response Fund, which it is supposed to spend on awareness campaigns and capacity building measures but, the money invariably goes into paying compensation for the deaths rather than preventing them," he said.

"It is not just UP. The governments of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh also do the same thing. And these three states contribute seventy to eighty per cent of the deaths by lighting in India," Srivastava added.

Also Read: More than four people died every day in India in 2020 due to extreme weather events: IMD report

What causes lighting strikes?

Lightning is caused by the generation of electrical charge in the clouds as a result of friction of water molecules. The heavier negative charge (the electrons) gets placed at the bottom of the clouds while the lighter positive charge rises up.

A sudden transfer of the negative charge on the ground results in the massive discharge of electricity on the surface which sometimes exposes people on the ground to its fatal effect.

Written by Pratyaksh Srivastava, with inputs from Brijendra Dubey in Mirzapur (UP).

#lightning #story #climatechange 

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