July 7, 2020, New Delhi: Disturbing as it may sound, it’s possible that while you crouch over your dinner table tonight for a plate of steaming hot rice, the dish would have perhaps originated from a paddy field where some poor farmers were charred to death by a lightning strike.
It’s a hypothetical example. But it may not be entirely far from the truth if you look at the alarmingly high number of villagers in India’s heartland who die from lightning strikes while out at work in crop fields during the rainy season.
An incredible number of people die from lightning strikes in India every year – that’s something in the vicinity of 2,000 deaths annually. In 2018 alone, over 2,300 people in India were killed by lightning bolts.
JOLTS FROM RECENT BOLTS
It’s a perpetual crisis that only rural India has to tackle. The uneasy subject is worth revisiting in the wake of an astonishingly high number of lightning deaths in recent weeks across India’s plains. In June end, lightning bolts claimed as many as 83 lives in just one day during thunderstorms across Bihar.
Going by data provided by India’s National Disaster Management Authority and as per media reports, more than 300 people have died in less than two months from lightning bolts and electrocution from lightning strikes in the two vulnerable states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Of them, as news reports quoting officials say, nearly 150 people died in just the last 10 days.
CRISIS ACROSS SEVERAL STATES
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where hundreds of thousands of farmers are traditionally into paddy farming and other forms of agriculture during the rainy season, are not the only states prone to lightning deaths.
An investigation published in the journal Springer Nature last February, titled ‘The Major Lightning Regions and Associated Casualties over India’, showed that Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha and Paschim Bangla are also as badly affected, if not worse.
The analysis came up with another interesting result.
It cited data showing that in India, the highest frequency of lightning strikes can be found in the northeastern states lying on the Himalayan mountain range and also in the hilly areas of southern India. But deaths from lightning hits are much higher in Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the frequencies of lightning strikes are comparatively much lower.
The paper says, “The lightning takes place mostly in the hilly regions of the different states such as Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. One of the interesting results of the study states that as the hilly regions’ population density is low, there are very few deaths recorded by the lightning in these areas. From 1998 to 2013, the total numbers of deaths attributed to nature are 317,453, out of which 9.85% were due to lightning.
“On the other hand, states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha are having high population density, a single strike may result in a higher fatality rate due to lightning.”
WHY DOES LIGHTNING STRIKE ONLY THE POOR?
Among India’s annual lightning deaths of around 2,000, a huge majority of the victims are financially deprived rural folk: full-time farmers, rural labourers and farming families living in and around open farmlands.
Basically, India’s countryside is a giant magnet for lightning strikes and unfortunately that is where villagers who are exposed to monsoonal thunderclouds hanging above their heads are perpetually at risk of being killed by lightning.
Urban India is way safer – there’s no comparison – where people are shielded from lightning strikes thanks to proper housing facilities, plenty of tower-like structures and tall buildings. The structures serve as natural lightning conductors, ensuring that people in urban settings are not exposed to lightning bolts – unless they are caught atop a tower or get trapped under a standalone tree in a park during bad weather.
While it is estimated that globally about 24,000 people die from lightning strikes every year, an article published in The Atlantic a few years back probed the question of why lightning disproportionately kills only the poor.
The Atlantic article cited above says, “India’s population is about four times larger than that of the US, but about 2 people in 1 million die from lightning strikes in India. In the US, that figure is 0.3 per million.
“The discrepancy holds for Europe, where lightning kills a tiny fraction of the population each year, about 0.2 people for every 1 million. Then there are parts of Asia and Africa, where lighting deaths can be 100 times higher. In Zimbabwe, it’s around 20 per 1 million. In Malawi, it’s 84 people per million. While lightning may seem to strike and kill at random, it’s mostly a problem of the poor.”
The conclusion here is that poorer societies or civilisations have a higher frequency of lightning deaths because poorer people work more in exposed agricultural land as against richer people, who work in urban settings.
DON’T COUNTRYSIDE DEATHS MATTER?
The cruel fact that it’s only the farmers of our country who are vulnerable to lightning deaths is perhaps the main reason why this shocking loss of life does not enter the national (read: urban) discourse.
Deaths triggered by infectious diseases, traffic accidents and terrorism get their due attention on hypersensitive television sets and on social media, but not something as serious as lightning deaths in the hinterland.
The unspoken truth is that lightning deaths happen mostly in Bharat (read: countryside), and barely in India (read: big cities). Hence, we’re hardly ever alarmed by it. And hence, the administration hardly ever looks for a permanent solution.
The irony here is that although lightning deaths in the villages is never a trending topic, that’s where most of our food comes from!
So to go back to where we started, behind every joyous meal we enjoy in our comfortable urban waterholes, the tragedy of lightning deaths could be written all over it.
Food for thought.
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