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Explained: Why lightning still kills several Indians

Although forecasts and warnings are made available through mobile text messages, it is not available in all regions. A large number of deaths occur due to this as not much awareness has been undertaken.

Written by Abhishek Angad , Edited by Explained Desk | Ranchi |
Updated: January 6, 2021 8:35:40 am
Lightning is a very rapid and massive discharge of electricity in the atmosphere, some of which is directed at the earth’s surface.

Lightning strikes have caused 1,771 deaths between April 1, 2019 and March 31, 2020, according to a report published on December 31 on lightning incidents in India. The report has been prepared by Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), a non-profit organisation that works closely with India Meteorological Department (IMD) along with Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), India Meteorological Society (IMS) and World Vision India to disseminate early lightning forecasts.

Uttar Pradesh with 293 deaths, Madhya Pradesh 248, Bihar 221, Odisha 200 and Jharkhand 172 deaths together accounted for more than 60 per cent of the numbers, which are 33 per cent of total fatalities from all natural disasters during the time period. In 2018-19 period, there were 2,800 deaths and the drop has been attributed to the efforts of various stakeholders, including CROPC. In order to further reduce deaths, the report suggests states “aggressively participate in Lightning Resilient India Campaign and undertake lightning risk management more comprehensively”.

Although forecasts and warnings are made available through mobile text messages, it is not available in all regions. A large number of deaths occur due to this as not much awareness has been undertaken. As per the report, interestingly, the Government of India and most states have not notified lightning as a disaster. There has always been a large number of animal fatalities due to lightning. Although the Ministry of Animal Husbandry has an Animal Disaster Management Plan, there hasn’t been any compliance pertaining to lightning fatalities.

So, how does lightning occur?

Lightning is the process of occurrence of a natural ‘electrical discharge of very short duration and high voltage between a cloud and the ground or within a cloud’, accompanied by a bright flash and sound, and sometimes thunderstorms. Inter cloud or intra cloud (IC) lightning which are visible and are harmless. It is cloud to ground (CG) lightning, which is harmful as the ‘high electric voltage and electric current’ leads to electrocution.

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How can deaths be minimised?

Every lightning strikes around a fixed period and almost similar geographical locations in similar patterns. As per the report, Kalbaishakhi—Norwesters, which are violent thunderstorms with lightning—claims life in eastern India; pre-monsoon lightning deaths occur mostly in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and UP. So as per CROPC, early lightning warning to farmers, cattle grazers, children and people in open areas is key. Then a local lightning safety action plan, like installing Lightning Protection Devices, is also need to prevent deaths.

What kind of technology is used to forecast lightning strikes?

CROPC has a MOU with the India Met Department (IMD), Ministry of Earth Science (MoES), Government of India to disseminate early lightning forecasts which uses satellite observations, inputs from ‘network of Doppler and other radars’, ‘lightning detection Sensors’ among others. “This makes Lightning Forecast unique with best possible lead time of even a week taking into account the devastations caused by the severe thunderstorms during pre-monsoon,” says the report, adding how this new has scientists from IITM, IMD and others working in tandem with a “holistic prediction tool”.

The report says during the 2019 pre-monsoon season of March-April-May, the tool helped forecast thunderstorms, which ‘helped in saving public life and properties’.

What does analysis show?

Lightning strikes originate from Chotanagpur Plateau – the confluence of Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand—and extended to Bangladesh to Patkai plateau of Meghalaya affecting other North eastern states. The reason for death was that people were caught unawares and about 78 per cent deaths took place due to people standing under isolated tall trees. About 22 per cent of the people were struck in the open. The report mentions that the rapid degradation of environment like global warming, deforestation, depletion of water bodies, concretisations, rising pollution and aerosol levels have cumulatively pushed the environment to extremes. “And lightning is direct promulgation of these climatic extremities.”

It has been observed that during pre-monsoon to initial monsoon, fatalities are more to farmers as they are out in the agriculture field or in orchards. In the later part of the year—September onwards—majority died while standing under tall trees or inside their huts. Lightning fatalities in Bihar is more due to lateral strikes (54 per cent) than direct strikes (34 per cent). Bihar plains have vast agriculture fields, especially north of the Ganga, and are devoid of trees.

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The Odisha story

Odisha had 11.20 lakh plus lightning strikes—the highest in the country—with only 200 casualties. During Cyclone Fani, the state saw more than one lakh intense lightning strikes on May 3 and May 4 in 2019. More than 1.2 million people were evacuated to cyclone shelters. “Odisha had zero casualty, mainly due to all 891 cyclone shelters being fitted with Lightning Arresters,” said the report.

On the other hand, Gujarat recorded 35 deaths and on April 10, 2019 a strike on Banaskantha Refinery triggered a fire that resulted in a loss of Rs 25 crore. Bihar had half the lightning strikes than Jharkhand, but had more deaths.

What is the economic impact of lightning?

The Centre had increased compensation for victims of natural disaster to Rs 4 lakh in 2015. In the last five years there were 13,994 fatalities, which brings the total compensation to around Rs 359 crore. There have been phenomenal losses of animal life also from lightning strike.

What are the recommendations of the report?

Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council chairperson Col Sanjay Kumar Srivastava (Retd), who is also convener of the Lightning Resilient Campaign, said seeing the adverse impact, a large number of affected states have notified lightning as state specific disaster. “However, since this is not a notified disaster as per the Ministry of Home Affairs, lightning risk management does not get required attention in national policy directives and developmental programmes,” he said, adding that it needs to be notified at the earliest looking at its impact.

The NDMA has issued comprehensive guidelines for preparations of Lightning action plans to states, but the large number of fatalities show the implementation also needs a more ‘scientific and focused community centric approach’ as well as convergence of various departments.

Col Srivastava said there was a need for a National Lightning Resilience Programme. “Mapping of lightning is a major breakthrough in identifying the precise risk in terms of lightning frequency, current intensity, energy content, high temperature and other adverse impacts. With continuous mapping for at least three years, a climatology can be established. This would yield a Lightning Risk Atlas map for India which will form the basis for a lightning risk management programme,” he added.

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