On May 22, Shivalingaiah Siddaiah Hiremath, 28, was returning home from the fields when a bolt from the sky struck him dead.
A farmer in Belgaum’s Ramdurg taluk, Hiremath’s death was dismissed as a paragraph in newspapers the same way as Shivanagouda Basappa Goudar, a 17-year-old ITI student, also killed by lightning while visiting his father who was tending to their agricultural plot in Siddanagavi village in Bagalkot district.
When a steady drizzle drenched a father-son duo—Chandrakanth Muddadagi, 60 and Siddharoodha Muddadagi, 37—from Jawalga village in Kalaburgi, they decided to take shelter in a cattle shed. A lightning struck the shed killing them both and a pair of bullocks tethered inside it.
A week earlier, 48-year-old Kallappa Amminbhavi took shelter under a tree when he was killed on the spot when lightning struck. He is survived by his wife and three sons, a newspaper reported as a footnote to the story.
What is common to Shivalingaiah, Shivanagouda, Kallappa or the Muddadagis is the fact that they were all the sole breadwinners of their respective families. It’s not just the loss of a family member but also a lifelong struggle for their kin to survive. All that the families of lightning victims get is a paltry Rs 2 lakh once the police register a case. And the families are then as good as forgotten.
India’s biggest killer among natural disasters
But what is not reported or understood is that lightning is India’s biggest killer and takes the most number of lives among those categorised as natural disasters. In 2013, 2,833 people died in lightning strikes, reveals government data, and on an average the powerful bolt from the sky accounts for 2,500-3,000 lives across the country every single year. A similar number get maimed or injured.
Though it is the biggest killer in India, the natural phenomenon gets national importance only when fatalities increase abnormally – like in a freak case when 59 people were killed in Bihar by a single bolt of lightning on June 22 this year.
This incident prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tweet:
But prayers alone aren’t enough. Such deaths and the compensation paid thereafter is a drain on the national exchequer and eventually affects the GDP too.
Sadly, there is not a single agency in the country that tracks, studies, researches or even suggests how the fatalities can be reduced.
It’s a known fact that statistics are not collected properly by State governments – they are counted only when a police complaint is registered as a First Information Report is a must if the kin or the injured like to claim compensation from the government.
What an RTI revealed
A glimpse into how governments treat lightning-related deaths and injuries can be known from a Right To Information query that this correspondent filed with the Kalaburagi (formerly Gulbarga) Revenue division that comprises six north Karnataka districts of Bellary, Raichur, Kalaburgi, Bidar, Koppal and Yadgir.
The RTI sought to know the total number of victims, the number of injured and compensation paid by the government of Karnataka in the last three financial years.
According to the reply filed by the Principal Information Officer of the Kalaburagi Revenue division, from April 2013 till September 2015, in a period spanning two-and-a-half years, lightning took the lives of 125 people in Bellary, Bidar, Kalaburgi, Koppal, Raichur and Yadgir districts. The officer informs that a total of Rs 2.48 crore has been disbursed as compensation to the kin of the dead and to the survivors.
The officer further states that statistics for the period between September 2015 and March 2016 has not been collected yet. For this, he has written separately to each of the deputy commissioners heading the six districts, with a note to send the information to the RTI applicant directly. So far, none of the DCs have replied.
Few injuries shown hides uncomfortable facts:
According to the RTI reply, though there were 125 reported deaths, lightning injured just 12 people during the same period – perhaps very few can survive a lightning strike. But, Vijay Doddanavar, a farmer who grows pulses in the region and a lighting survivor, has a different explanation for this low number of those reported injured.
Lightning is common in the plains of north Karnataka and affects the farming community the most. Their ploughs and water in the fields act as a conductor. There is no escaping lightning as there cannot be an advance warning system for it like floods, heavy winds or cyclones. One has to take precautions on their own and pray every time farmers enter their fields. Those who survive get burns on their bodies and are afflicted with temporary loss of memory.
He says if every survivor is keen to receive compensation from the government, they first have to run around police stations trying to get evidence, proof and witnesses that it was indeed lightning that struck them. Once they convince the cops to write out an FIR, they have to then write another application to the tahsildar (the taluk’s revenue head) along with a copy of the FIR and medical reports. The tahsildar will then check whether there was indeed lightning at that point in time as claimed by the complainant with the nearest meteorological department.
Armed with this thickening file, the tahsildar will then recommend a sum to the deputy commissioner of the district who may or may not agree with his order. ``It’s a laborious and time-consuming process which survivors do not want to go through,’’ says Doddannavar, who received just Rs 6,000 after a 20-month-long process.
This, perhaps, explains the fact that the government has paid just Rs 59,000 in compensation to 10 survivors. In 2013-14, Rs 12,000 was paid to the two injured; in 2014-15, Rs 29,000 was paid to three of the injured and in 2015 (till September), this revenue division paid Rs 18,000 to five injured persons.
Streamline and centralise data collection
Lightning deaths occur more in the plains, and scars those injured for the rest of their lives. It also affects the agrarian community, seen as the backbone of the economy, as lightning can strike anywhere and anytime while those working in the fields have nowhere to run.
It is time the Centre and State governments collect proper statistics and conduct research on how to reduce fatalities. All it has to do is look towards Australia where serious research is being undertaken for several years on lightning conductivity, as this country experiences very powerful bolts that are far more powerful than those that strike India.
Apart from the Indian Meteorological Department, the only such centre that studies lightning and advises citizens is the Lightning Awareness and Research Centre (LARC) started by the Centre for Innovation in Science and Social Action, Thiruvananthapuram.
LARC aims to be a single point source in India for all information and assistance for the public on issues related to lightning and to conduct research and case studies. It also disseminates information on lightning safety among public so that lives can be protected, ensure lightning protection devices that are sold comply with prescribed standards and undertakes other related activity. Till recently, it also had a call centre, which is now defunct.
The Centre for Disaster Mitigation and Management, VIT University, Vellore, has outlined the following precautionary steps to be taken in case lightning appears in the skies:
- Rush indoors.
- Quickly get into a vehicle and roll up the windows. Do not touch any metal part of the vehicle, especially its roof.
- Avoid isolated trees or isolated structures as a bolt of lightning is prone to strike them first.
- Avoid water bodies.
- Lightning can strike the same place twice and if it strikes the ground, it can spread upto a radius of 20 metres.
- Do not use wired phones (landlines) during storms, cell phones are the safest.
- In case you are caught in the open, crouch as low as possible on the balls of your feet but do not lie flat on the ground.