“When thunder roars, go indoors,” is a catchphrase used in the US to help people to stay safe during spells of lightning.

It's the advice India would go well to adopt. Last week, in a span of just 48 hours, 120 people died in lightning strikes across the country. The highest number of casualties were in Bihar, with 57 deaths (and 22 injured), followed by UP with 41 deaths, Madhya Pradesh with 12 and Jharkhand with 10.

The problem, it seems, is that many Indians, including government officials, believe that lightning is an act of God so nothing really can be done to prevent such deaths.

“Lightning ka kya prevention ho sakta hai?” asked principal secretary of Uttar Pradesh, Suresh Chandra. "It is such a powerful current. Where can people get the opportunity to save themselves from lightning?"

High casualities

As it turns out, lightning causes more deaths in India than any other natural disaster. Every year, 1,755 people in the country die from lightning strikes, according to an article in the Economic and Political Weekly. This was more than the numbers of deaths caused by flood, landslide, heat stroke and cold waves. Between 1967 to 2012, lightning accounted for 39% of deaths that resulted from natural disasters in India, the article said.

In 2014, 2,582 people died of lightning strikes in India, according to the National Crime Record Bureau. The previous year, 2,833 people had died of lightning strikes.

The numbers are high despite extremely poor reporting on lightning deaths.

“Mostly we gather news about lightning deaths from newspapers, or panchayat or sometimes the police station,” said Keshav Mohan, director of Institute of Land and Disaster Management, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, who co-authored the EPW article. "In the remote villages, it is difficult to know what is happening."

Official aid

Few victims of lighting strikes actually get any official help because the phenomenon is not covered by under the National Disaster Relief Fund. However, last year, the 14th Financial Commission allowed state governments to earmark 10% of the State Disaster Relief Funds to providing immediate relief to victims of disasters specific to their states, if these are not in the home ministry's notified list of disasters.

As a result, Bihar is now able to provide relief to its victims. It awards Rs 4 lakhs to families of victims . The death of a domestic animal could get the owner Rs 25,000. Other states are yet to follow suit.

Despite the sense that lightning deaths are inevitable, nations such as the US have actually reduced casualties. From about 100 fatalities due to lightning in the 1970s, the number has fallen to 27 in 2015. In addition to getting people to remember advice about ducking indoors during a thunderstorm, rapid urbanisation is one of the reasons for the decline in lightning: there are now many more buildings to shelter in.

While in the US, lightning strikes people camping or at the beach, in India it's farmers who are most vulnerable.

Reducing risks

While the risk from lightning cannot be completely eradicated, fatalities could definitely be reduced.

To begin with, the Indian Meteorological Department could provide warnings before lightning strikes. Unlike the US or Canada, India does not have a lightning detection network.

“Every state government can identify vulnerable areas in their states," said Mohan. "These are identified using geophysical aspects of the areas. These could be mapped for any natural hazards, including rainfall, drought, landslides, and even lightning strikes.”

The government could also issue guidelines on what to do when lightning strikes.

This year, the Bihar government, for the first time, issued advertisements in the newspapers and in the electronic media about how residents should deal with a thunderstorm.

Taking these messages national is crucial, say public health experts. Some point to the strategies used in Bangladesh, where folk songs, roadside stage plays and storytelling is used for public education about lightning risks.