Patna: Lalo Devi, Seema Devi, Gayanti Devi and Rachna Kumari – all landless farm labourers who were injured in lightning strikes had not heard of, nor were informed about the mobile app ‘Indravajra’, a much-hyped early warning system for lightning strikes.
On July 2, lightning strikes killed 26 people, including women and children, in Bihar. Again, most of the victims were poor farmers and farm labourers who were working in paddy fields. It was the third time in a week that lightning strikes killed several people across the state. About 96 people were killed by lightning on June 26 while 11 people succumbed to it four days later, as per official data of the Bihar Disaster Management Department (DMD).
According to the department's figures, this year – primarily in the last four months – 182 people were killed by lightning strikes in Bihar. However, unconfirmed reports say more than 200 people have been killed by lightning this year.
Lalo, Seema, Gayanti and Rachna are undergoing treatment at a government-run hospital after being injured in a lightning strike on Thursday. They were totally unaware of the mobile app Indravajra as government agencies have failed to reach out to them – the most vulnerable section in danger of being struck by lightning.
“Humni kabo na sunli aur sarkaro na batalkawa hai Indravajra ke bare mein.Hum garibwan ke jaan ke koi bachawe wala na hai”(We have never heard of Indravajra and the government did not inform us about it either. No one cares about the lives of poor people) said Lalo. She is a resident of Musahartoli near Sorangpur village in Dulhin Bazar in Patna district.
The app is one of the measures that the state disaster management department took to warn people ahead of the threat of lightning strikes.
Lalo and five other women were transplanting paddy in a field when lightning strikes hit them, killing 18-year-old Neetu Kumari, the daughter of Jitan Manjhi, who died on the spot. Others sustained injuries in the incident. In Patna, five people, including a child, were killed while working in paddy fields on Thursday.
Seema, who is still recovering from the incident, expressed her anger against the government’s failure to notify them.
“Hum garib sab ke koi na hai,humni Bhagwan bharose jeevika ke liye ladte hai.Sarkar kewal ghoshna karta hai bachane ka”(No one stands for the poor; we are at God’s mercy in our struggle for a livelihood.The government only announced that it was helping us but nothing happened on the ground) said Seema.
Vinod and Dukhan Manjhi, the husbands of Seema and Lalo respectively, have questioned the government’s early warning system app. “We are poor, landless farm labourers. We do not have money to buy smartphones. How can we get information without it?” they asked.
They are two of hundreds of thousands of farm labourers who do not use smartphones, making the app irrelevant for them.
Similarly, poor farmers and cattle grazers, who form the majority of victims of lightning strikes along with farm labourers, do not use their smartphones when they are outside their houses. According to official reports, most of the victims were at work in paddy fields or grass fields. They were neither informed, alerted or advised not to venture out of their homes.
Bihar has been witnessing an increase in incidents of lightning strikes in the last few years. The DMD had launched the mobile app Indravajra and introduced an early warning system with the help of US-based Earth Networks, after signing an MoU last year. DMD officials said the app was useful as it gives alerts for lightning in the form of alarm bells at least half-an-hour in advance, for within a radius of 20 kilometres. However, its plans remained confined to paper.
Mobile app Indravajra can only be downloaded on smartphones. As a result, poor farmers, farm labourers and cattle grazers do not have the means to access it.
It was evident as less than 50,000 smartphone users, mostly in urban areas, have downloaded the app so far.
In a bid to tide over their failure after a large number deaths due to lightning strikes happened in Bihar on June 26 (the biggest number of casualties in a day was reported in Bihar), the government has appealed to people to avoid going outside, particularly in the field in view of the forecast for storms and rain issued by the India Meteorological Department (IMD).
After the earlier deaths happened, the DMD had issued a full-page advertisement in local Hindi dailies on what to do and not to do in order to protect oneself from lightning strikes. In its advertisement, the department also urged people to download the mobile app ‘Indravajra’ to access predictions for thunderbolts in their area.
“We have to work differently to inform and educate people at the panchayat level itself about the lightning warning. It is clear that poor people hardly get the warning sent through TV channels, mobile apps, text messages or by other ways,” said a DMD official.
Pratyaya Amrit, DMD Principal Secretary, who has been around for several years and is considered close to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, has repeatedly said that the DMD will involve all including police officials, district officials, panchayat representatives and the media to spread the advance warning without delay. “If we reach out to people with an advance warning, it could minimise the loss of lives from lightning strikes,” he said.
As per official figures, in 2019, 170 people were killed by lightning in Bihar. Lightning killed 139 people in Bihar in 2018, 180 in 2017 and 107 in 2016.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar expressed his condolences over the deaths and announced a sum of Rs 4 lakhs for the families of the deceased.