Lightning kills more people in India than any other natural calamity. In a country where thousands of people die each year because of floods, cyclones and other such events, the death toll from lightning strikes paints a grim picture.

Lightning is responsible for at least 10% of the total deaths caused by nature in most years in India and, according to the National Crime Records Bureau data, at least 2,000 deaths were associated with lightning every year since 2005. Still, lightning is not categorized as a natural calamity, meaning affected people or their families are not eligible for compensation from the government unlike in the case of floods or earthquakes.

The situation is particularly bad in the eastern states of Assam, West Bengal and Odisha, where the highest fatalities are reported. Three people were killed and at least 50 injured when lightning struck Assam’s Cachar district on Wednesday. Most of the victims are farm labourers who take shelter under isolated trees during a thunderstorm. Northeastern states, Maharashtra, Kerala, Jharkhand and Bihar also suffer heavy casualties.

The problem with lightning, like earthquakes, is that it cannot be predicted, which makes it all the more challenging to issue timely warnings.

“Predicting lightning is very complicated. Everything happens in one second, from trigger to strike. Before that, it is hard to say where it will be triggered. A cloud can be huge, sometimes covering 25 km sq. Which part of the cloud the trigger for lightning will occur is hard to say," said Sunil Pawar, a senior scientist at the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

The institute has set up India’s only lightning location network in Maharashtra. The India Meteorological Department is, however, planning to extend the network across India.

“In some regions of Maharashtra such as Vidarbha and Marathwada, there are heavy casualties. Every year, around 300 people die here," Pawar said. Once cloud-to-ground or intra-cloud discharges take place, scientists can find out at what speed and in which direction the cloud is moving and hence predict its next strike. Those regions can then take necessary precautions.

This network will also help scientists find out why some areas are more prone to lightning strikes than others. The climatological data that scientists get from satellites is not enough, Pawar said. Lightning detection is also important for real-time storm tracking, warning, and short-term forecasting of weather conditions as well as rainfall.

Steps to prevent deaths caused by lightning still remain a low-priority area for governments, as the extent of the fatalities are usually under-reported, unlike headline-grabbing death tolls in the case of earthquakes, floods or even the recent heat wave that claimed at least 2,000 lives across India.

In Kerala, a State Disaster Management Authority official said lightning location networks may not be the best way to prevent deaths.

“Lightning detection networks are not scientifically sensible as they cannot give a reliable enough warning. And what can people really do if they have a warning? Money is better spent on providing relief to affected people," said Sekhar L. Kuriakose, head scientist at the State Emergency Operations Centre, government of Kerala.

“We have been repeatedly asking for lightning to be included in natural calamities (making affected people eligible for relief from the government), but it has not happened yet. All states are given some leverage to declare certain calamities as natural calamities within the limited scopes of what states can do," Kuriakose said on the phone.

“Even though the incidences and deaths are distributed, total impact of lightning is more than any natural disaster. Attention needs to be paid to this issue," Pawar said.

PTI contributed to this story.

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