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India: Lightning Killed 1,771 in 2019 – but Strikes Are Becoming Less Deadly

India: Lightning Killed 1,771 in 2019 – but Strikes Are Becoming Less Deadly

Photo: Breno Machado/Unsplash.

India recorded 1,771 deaths due to lightning between April 1, 2019, and March 31, 2020. Uttar Pradesh reported the most fatalities among India’s states, followed by Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, in that order.

According to the Annual Lightning Report 2019-2020, released on December 31, 2020, this figure is substantially lower than the figure for 2018. The report is the product of the Lightning Resilient India Campaign – in turn a joint initiative of the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROPC); the India Meteorological Department (IMD); the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), Pune; the India Meteorological Society; and an NGO called World Vision India.

India’s National Crime Record Bureau says 2,389 persons died by lightning in 2018, and that this cause of death is the single most common reason for deaths by forces of nature (34.2%).

Very broadly, there are three forms of lightning: inter-cloud, intra-cloud and cloud-to-ground. Lightning of the last variety kills humans, as well as wild animals and livestock, and can substantially damage property.

The Lightning Resilient India Campaign’s mission, which its members shared during the report’s launch, is to lower the deaths due to lightning by 80% before 2023.

Their approach “includes carrying IMD’s early warnings timely to the community in an impact-based forecast” creating awareness of the warnings, promoting “lightning safety and protection along with research”, and “simultaneous advocacy for policy and technology interventions through meaningful academia and NGO partnerships,” said CROPC chairman Col. Sanjay Kumar Srivastava.

The campaign has also created a country-wide network, with help from different state governments, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), IITM, and other organisations and institutions. The network broadcasts early warnings, which are derived from a variety of inputs including radar data, ISRO satellite imagery, air force observations and lightning sensors installed by IITM researchers.

CROPC said its lightning-map is a breakthrough that could help identify the precise risk in terms of lightning frequency, current intensity, energy content, temperature, etc. — and could eventually lead to the creation of a national ‘lightning risk atlas’.

The report on lightning deaths was compiled based on state government data, media reports and self-reports from volunteers.

More lightning strikes does not mean more deaths due to lightning – as susceptibility to lightning varies from one area to the next, as does the availability of safe areas.

Odisha offers a good example of this nuance: it recorded the most lightning in the given period but reported fewer deaths as a result than Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. The report attributes this success to Odisha state’s disaster preparedness, greater awareness among members of the vulnerable communities, and widespread use of mitigation measures like lightning arresters.

According to Col. Srivastava, “recent observations of lightning strikes over India confirmed … that the Chhota Nagpur plateau” at “the confluence of Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal, inhabited by tribal communities”, is the country’s “most lightning-prone area.”

In 2015, the Government of India enhanced the compensation to victims of lightning strikes to Rs 4 lakh. In the last five years, 13,994 people have died of lightning strikes in India and the victims’ families have been paid Rs 559.7 crore in all.

Also read: Understanding India’s Lightning Patterns to Prevent India’s Lightning Deaths

But for these significant figures, the Centre is yet to declare lightning as a notified natural disaster at the national level.

As a result, “lightning risk management does not get [the] attention in national policy directives and developmental programmes” it deserves, the report said.

Even among states, only Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Odisha have declared lightning to be a state-specific disaster.

Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, the director-general of meteorology at IMD, said, “Lightning is not a national natural disaster but still the government is taking steps to manage lightning”.

According to him, IMD has been working with some NGOs to draft forecasts, disseminate early warnings and design awareness campaigns. In 2018, the Centre set up an expert committee of IMD scientists to create better forecasting models and thus help mitigate the impact of lightning strikes.

In 2001, a high-powered committee under the chairmanship of J.C. Pant submitted a report that went on to form the bedrock of disaster management institutions in India. A.K. Sinha, who was a member secretary of this committee, said, “Either the National Disaster Management Authority or the Ministry of Home Affairs can declare lightning as a notified national natural disaster.”

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She is on Twitter at @nivedita_Him.

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