Lightning Kills More People in India Than Floods, Quakes

Those engaged in agricultural work – such as working in the fields and grazing animals – as well as nomads and forest workers have been particularly vulnerable to lightning deaths.

New Delhi: How can it be that the natural disaster that kills the most people isn’t recognised by the national-level official disaster relief policy for providing proper compensation to the families of victims from the national calamity relief funds?

This question has returned to haunt disaster-policymakers in India, with over 110 deaths reported due to lightning in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh on June 21-22. An emergency meeting of the cabinet was called in Bihar and compensation for victims was also announced. However, there has been a longstanding demand that, apart from such ad hoc compensatory payments announced after various lightning disasters, a more regular provision should be made at the national level in the calamity relief funds for lightning victims.

Apart from the deaths caused by lightning, its consequent injuries can be very painful and require immediate treatment. So arrangements need to be made not just for compensation but also for prompt and proper medical care so that suffering can be reduced and some lives can still be saved.

“It is mentioned under ‘death due to natural causes’, implying that it affects everyone equally. Yet it affects the villagers most, and since most poor people still stay in villages, it affects the poor disproportionately,” says Dr. Yogesh Jain, who treats lightning victims at a rural hospital in Bilaspur district, Chattisgarh. “Those who work in the fields or have to go around with herds of cows and goats or have to go out into the forests are more likely to suffer. Easily several scores of people die due to this every year in rural districts.”

It has been known to senior policymakers that lightning has been the biggest killer among the various natural disasters in India in recent decades. Although disasters like floods and earthquakes result in greater economic losses, lightning has been the most prolific destroyer of human lives.

A study by Faisel Iliyas and Keshav Mohan, from the Institute of Land and Disaster Management with the Government of Kerala, and others examined data on leading natural disasters for 45 years (1967-2012) and described their conclusions in the Economic and Political Weekly on June 7. According to them, 39% of all deaths had been caused by lightning – compared to 18% by floods. More recent official data for the last decade reveals that between 2,000 and 2,500 deaths on average are caused by lightning every year around the country.

Most of the deaths caused by lightning in India have been reported from Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chattisgarh and the Himalayan region. Perhaps the most tragic of these deaths were of schoolchildren in Jharkhand. Those engaged in agricultural work – such as working in the fields and grazing animals – as well as nomads and forest workers have also been particularly vulnerable to lightning deaths.

Over the years, complaints have been piling up that, while families of those people who died in other disasters received some compensatory payment from the national qzcalamity relief fund, families of lightning-victims do not get such payments. After several protests, some payments were released at the state-level and in Bihar even as local newspapers reported that the state government has planned to take some steps to undo this injustice. On the whole however, victims of lightning have been denied justice for a long time and this anomaly in our disaster-policy should be corrected as soon as possible.

The seriousness of lightning’s impact should also be communicated to more people, particularly those who are more vulnerable to it. Steps should be taken to protect schools, hospitals and other places where a large number of people are likely to gather on a regular basis and which are located in areas that are more affected by lightning. Lightning conductors should be readily available close to the areas more affected by lightning.

In areas more likely to be affected by lightning, hospitals should be well-equipped to handle a significant number of patients suffering from lightning-related injuries. These precautions are all the more necessary as the danger of lightning is likely to increase alongside climate change. Studies led by Colin Rice of Tel Aviv University and David Romps of the University of California, Berkeley, have revealed that the threat of lightning is likely to increase by as much as 50% with global warming.