In November 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 10-point agenda to reduce the risk Indians faced from natural disasters. His plan considered a “holistic approach to disaster risk management and addresses a whole range of issues, from community preparedness to use of technology and international cooperation”.

One of the key points made by the prime minister was to “ensure the opportunity to learn from a disaster is not wasted”. But, if the 124 deaths caused by thunderstorms in five states last week are anything to go by, the country’s official weather forecasting agency, the India Meteorological Department, and the various disaster management units have not learnt from past disasters or understood the seriousness of Modi’s agenda.

On Monday, dust storms again hit Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi, while another death was reported in Uttar Pradesh. The Met department warned of thunderstorms and squalls, with wind speeds of 50 km-70 km per hour, sweeping through nearly 20 states across northern India and the North East for three days from Monday. As a result, Haryana declared a holiday for schools on Monday and Tuesday, cancelled leave for all government officials and put emergency services on the alert.

In Delhi, the authorities announced that all evening schools would stay shut on Tuesday while the traffic police issued an advisory asking people to avoid getting on the road. In Uttarakhand, schools will stay closed on Tuesday in Dehradun and Haridwar.

Last week’s thunderstorms killed 73 people in Uttar Pradesh, 35 in Rajasthan, six in Uttarakhand and two in Punjab. Eight deaths were reported from Telangana in the south. High-speed winds uprooted trees and electricity poles and caused homes to collapse. In Rajasthan, 206 people were injured, while Uttar Pradesh counted 91 injured people. Days later, several parts of Rajasthan were still without electricity while the state government was also trying to restore water supply in affected areas.

“It is highly unfortunate that so many people have died due to dust storm and thunderstorms, which are a regular feature in this season in North India,” said Ashok Jaswal, a former scientist with the Met department, Pune. “The department should have properly warned the states about the possible intensity of the storm and issued area-specific alerts by collaborating with the to-be-affected districts.”

The storm uprooted trees and damaged homes in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Credit: HT)

Spring storms

In spring, as temperatures start rising, they add to atmospheric instability, which, in the presence of a western disturbance or a low-pressure system originating in the Mediterranean region, triggers storms in North India.

M Rajeevan, secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences, said that dust storms, thunderstorms and lightning activity are common in North India in April and May. “Some storms gain severe intensity and can cause severe damage, mainly due to stronger winds and lightning,” he said.

He also said the Met department had “correctly predicted… chances of thunderstorms”. But looking at the loss of life and the damage caused by the storms, questions are being raised about the effectiveness of India’s weather alerts system.

‘Weather warning has to be specific’

The Met department’s All India Weather Warning bulletin on Wednesday said that “thunderstorm accompanied with gusty winds very likely at isolated places over East Uttar Pradesh, East Rajasthan, East Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Vidarbha, Coastal Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Rayalaseema, interior Tamil Nadu, South interior Karnataka and Lakshadweep”. It also warned of dust storms/thunderstorms in “isolated places” over West Rajasthan. Technically, “very likely” means a 50%-75% probability of occurrence of a weather activity. If 1%-25% meteorological stations witness such weather activity, then the Met department’s criterion of “isolated places” is met.

“Weather warning has to be specific, else people do not take these alerts seriously,” said Ashok Jaswal. “The Met department had listed a whole lot of states, but not all were badly affected by the thunderstorm. Also, ‘isolated places’ in large states like Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan are meaningless.”

A quick look at the Met department’s thunderstorm warnings shows that they use the same language for all kinds of thunderstorms. Such alerts do not reflect the possible intensity or impact of the storm.

Apart from the Met department’s headquarters in Delhi, its regional meteorological centres also issue weather warnings for their respective regions and alert the district collectors. However, an investigation by the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar found that no such warning was issued by the Regional Meteorological Centre in Jaipur to district collectors before Wednesday’s storm. Also, the city’s Doppler Weather Radar – which can accurately assess the severity and direction of storms – had not been functional for a few days.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath also accused the weather department of not alerting residents on time.

This is not the first time the response of the Met department has been called into question. When Cyclone Ockhi hit Kerala and Tamil Nadu in December, many had accused the Met department of issuing a delayed warning, which they said led to more lives being lost. The cyclone killed some 77 people, mostly fishermen, while over 240 fisherfolk are still missing.

A dust storm approaches Bikaner in Rajasthan. Such weather activity is common in North India in the months of April and May. (Credit: PTI)

Forecasting a thunderstorm

A thunderstorm is a short-lived weather system with a life cycle of a few hours. “We may be able to tell some time two days in advance the possibility of thunderstorms over a region,” said Rajeevan. “However, exactly when it will develop and intensify and [the] exact location can be predicted only maximum two hours in advance. Thus, there is no appreciable lead time.”

But even this much time can be of great help, according to Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay who specialises in dynamic meteorology. Pointing out that predicting thunderstorms and their intensity is a challenging task, he said, “But once the thunder cells are captured in a radar, it is possible to study them and predict the possible path of the thunderstorm, and warn the districts to be affected in the next couple of hours. Even a lead time of one to two hours is enough to save lives.”

When the dust storm was building over Rajasthan, Jaswal said he was monitoring images on the Met department’s Doppler Weather Radar. “These radars show the thunder cells,” he explained. “Till the time there are only one or two thunder cells, there is no reason to worry as these cells dissipate within an hour or so. But, during the recent thunder activity, there was a long chain of thunder cells in which one cell feeds the next cell and the chain continues and causes havoc. And this is what happened on May 2.”

Balasubramanian said there were other factors – an approaching western disturbance, cyclonic circulation, high temperatures in Rajasthan and its surrounding areas, and easterly winds bringing in moisture – that also pointed to the possibility of intense thunder activity in the region.

Killer lightning

Thunderstorms are often accompanied by lightning. Lightning kills 1,755 Indians every year on average – more than any other natural disaster. Many of the deaths last week were attributed to lightning.

However, the Met department has no official system of collecting information on state-wise lightning deaths. Rajeevan said the department “normally gets lightning data from press and media”. He added that the incidence of lighting is increasing, which is expected in a warming environment, and that more severe storms are expected in the future.

Last mile challenge

There are two broad aspects to managing a weather disaster: the first is forecasting the weather event, which is a scientific activity, and the second is implementing and disseminating the weather warning, which involves numerous government agencies. For instance, once the Met department issues a warning, there are several government agencies, at the national and state level, that need to be informed. The information is then passed on to district-level and block-level agencies for dissemination and suitable action.

“On the one hand, the Met department’s alerts are vague and ambiguous, on the other hand, dissemination of information is a slow and long process,” said Anshu Sharma, founder of the civil society organisation SEEDS, which works to build disaster and climate resilience in vulnerable communities across Asia. “By the time information reaches the last person in the village, a lot of time is already wasted. And this is the biggest last mile challenge in managing disasters,” he added.

According to Sharma, if communities are regularly informed about the dos and don’ts during a thunderstorm or lightning activity, they can be prepared to respond to such disasters and lives can be saved. “The forecast needs to be converted into a well-worded, easy to understand pictorial warning in local language for maximum impact,” he said. Mobile phone applications or text message alerts can be used for swifter and wider dissemination of information, he added.

The National Disaster Management Authority seems to have realised the need for efficient dissemination of weather warnings and has since Thursday been regularly tweeting information on how people can protect themselves during various weather events.

Rajeevan said the National Disaster Management Authority and the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, were developing suitable mobile applications.

In Rajasthan, Bijendra Singh of the State Disaster Management Authority said, “We are building people’s capacities for the last many years and it is a continuous process. Once the people know dos and don’ts during thunder and lightning, they can protect themselves.”

Back in 2014, meteorologist Akshay Deoras and the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment had prepared a joint proposal for improving India’s weather forecasting system and submitted it to the Ministry of Earth Sciences. The proposal listed out various areas of concern such as non-functional Doppler Weather Radars, lack of a dissemination system and the non-user-friendly language of weather forecasts among others. The ministry had forwarded the proposal to the Met department, where it remains, gathering dust.

Following last week’s thunderstorms, it is clear the time for assurances is long over and that action is the need of the hour. Or else the prime minister’s 10-point agenda may remain a non-starter.

Nidhi Jamwal is a journalist in Mumbai.