Mumbai: On July 5, 15 people reportedly died after being struck by lightning in Bihar; seven people, including two children died from lightning in Uttar Pradesh on July 7; 22 people died, and eight children suffered burns in UP, from lightning on July 11.

Between April 1 and July 25, 429 people have died from lightning in India, up from 300 that died in the same period in 2022, according to data put together by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation, and shared with IndiaSpend by Kiran Pandey, Programme Director of the Environment Resources Unit at CSE. They collate data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the Disaster Management Division and media reports.

As of July 25, Bihar had recorded the maximum number of deaths (160), higher than the same period last year when it recorded 57 deaths, Pandey said.

In 2021, more people died due to lightning strikes than floods or cold exposure. As many as 40% of the 7,126 accidental deaths reported by the National Crime Records Bureau attributed to weather events were due to lightning strikes.

Between 2000 and 2021, over 49,000 have died from lightning strikes across the country. The latest numbers from the IMD are from March 2023, and show that 68 people died due to various weather events, of which 60 died due to lightning strikes.

“Lightning is often called a silent killer. This is because even though lightning kills more people every year than heat waves, floods, landslides and cyclones, it somehow does not make headlines,” said Akshit Sangomala, who writes on climate change, science and policy for CSE in New Delhi. “This could be because the deaths are not clustered together and spread over time and space.”

“This could also be a reason why lightning has not been declared a natural disaster by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), as yet. Some states, such as Bihar, have made a demand for this declaration,” he further added.

We reached out to the NDMA for comment--on why lightning has not been declared a natural disaster despite a high national death toll--via call and email, and will update the story when we receive a response.

Global warming could increase lightning strikes

Lightning is a giant spark of electricity in the atmosphere between clouds, the air, or the ground. It can occur “between opposite charges within the thunderstorm cloud (intra-cloud lightning) or between opposite charges in the cloud and on the ground (cloud-to-ground lightning)”, according to the US government’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. Tall objects like trees, bushes and buildings are more susceptible to being struck by lightning, but lightning can also strike in an open field.

If humans are struck by lightning, it can result in multisystem dysfunction, and survivors may experience prolonged disability following recovery from the initial strike. Electrical energy can also cause muscular spasm and necrosis, thrombosis, blood vessel tear, unconsciousness, and motor and sensory function abnormalities.

Data from the annual reports of the Lightning Resilient India Campaign showed that lightning strikes increased 34% from 2019-20 to 2020-21, while reducing 19.5% between 2020-21 and 2021-22. The report is a joint initiative of the Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council (CROPC), a nonprofit that works with the government, the IMD, the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, the India Meteorological Society and World Vision India, a child-focused humanitarian organisation.

“The reason attributed to reduction in lightning is due to Covid-19 pandemic-induced reduction in aerosol level, pollution, environmental upgradation and relatively stable weather system in the Indian subcontinent,” said Pandey.

Studies find that with greater pollution, and a warming earth, lightning strikes are more likely.

A study from the US, published in November 2014, by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that lightning strikes will increase by about 12% for every degree of rise in global average air temperature.

Another study, by scientists at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Ambedkar University and the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism, published in July 2022, found a correlation between the intensity of lightning flashes and atmospheric concentration of aerosols and carbon dioxide.

“The increase in lightning strikes in India and around the world is related to the increase in the frequency and intensity of thunderstorms with which they are associated. The thunderstorms are directly related to the increase in air temperatures and availability of moisture in the atmosphere, which are necessary for the genesis of storms,” said Sangomala. He said greenhouse gases increase both air temperatures and moisture levels and therefore lead to more storms and hence lightning strikes. “As the Earth warms further, there could definitely be more lightning strikes, including in India.”

Preventing death and destruction from lightning strikes

In March 2019, India’s Meteorological Department began the Lightning Resilient India Campaign with the aim to reduce lightning deaths by 80% in three years. “The campaign, through multi- stakeholders engagement at national and state level with governments, academia, NGOs and communities, has been successful in bringing down deaths by more than 60% within two years,” the 2021-22 annual report says, without providing the detailed data.

There are different sources for lightning deaths used by government agencies.

The NCRB collects data based on police reports from states and districts. The Lightning Resilient India Campaign uses data from the state-level disaster management departments where available, and NCRB where not available, said Colonel Sanjay Srivastava, chairman of CROPC. Hence the numbers from the two sources might differ. We have requested the data put together by the campaign and will update the story when we receive it.

Across India, lightning deaths remained similar between 2019 and 2021, the year for which the latest comparable data from NCRB are available. Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand had the most deaths because of lightning in 2021, as per NCRB data. At the state level, deaths reduced in Bihar and Jharkhand, while Madhya Pradesh and Odisha saw an increase, between 2019 and 2021.

In 2021, the National Disaster Management Authority released a protocol for early warning dissemination on thunderstorms and lightning that emphasised the need for an effective warning system “to minimise the loss of life”.

“The Ministry of Earth Sciences communicates warnings directly to the general public through the DAMINI mobile app and the RAIN ALARM mobile app about 30-40 minutes in advance of the event. Warning for lightning occurrence is also provided up to three hours in advance through other mobile apps like MAUSAM, UMANG and MEGHDOOT,” as per the protocol.

During winters, northern parts of India such as Jammu and Kashmir are particularly vulnerable to lightning strikes, according to a study that looked at lightning strikes between 1998 and 2013. While lightning strikes occur frequently in hilly regions over India throughout the year, sparse population over the hilly terrain means there are fewer casualties, the study, by scientists from Banaras Hindu University, and published in February 2020, said.

“The favourable climatic conditions, such as availability of moisture content, unstable atmosphere and strong convection, cause severe cases of lightning over the regions of Orissa and Maharashtra,” the study added.

In Madhya Pradesh, while there are guidelines for lightning strikes on the website of the state's disaster management authority, lightning has not been categorised as a natural disaster. Orissa labels lightning as a ‘state-specific disaster’ and says it has installed a robust infrastructure in order to mitigate lightning-related casualties in the state.

In Odisha, Pandey credited the use of early warning communication systems and awareness programmes at the community level for the reduction in deaths due to lightning. Deaths due to lightning in Odisha reduced from 446 in 2017 to 287 in 2021.

“Lightning risk management is a collective effort. In Odisha, our strength is a coalition of all 20 government universities, including IIT Bhubaneswar, AIIMS Bhubaneswar and NIT Rourkela, working together with the state and districts,” said Colonel Sanjay Srivastava, chairman of CROPC. “A similar model is there in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, Assam etc.”

However, Pandey added that the lack of lightning protection systems that are used to prevent or lessen lightning strike damage to buildings are the biggest drawback in the mitigation of lightning in India. “The coverage of LPS is just 2% and in rural areas it is almost zero. This is the main cause of death due to lightning.”

In India, lightning protection systems are being manufactured and tested at the Central Power Research Institute (CPRI) in Bengaluru which is capable of testing equipment for strikes up to 40 kilo Ampere (kA), explained Pandey, adding that as India has had strikes greater than 312 kA, there is a need to upgrade its testing capacity.

"Lightning is an evolving science, and there is a huge requirement of research-based knowledge for its mitigation,” said Srivastava. “Currently, data analysis, research and development, socio-economic risk assessment, etc. is being done by only CROPC. More organisations, academia and funding are required."

IndiaSpend has reached out to the disaster management authorities of Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jammu & Kashmir. We also contacted the Ministry of Earth Sciences and the IMD. This story will be updated when they respond.

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