West Bengal politicians are thunderstruck! Almost literally. Earlier this week, 32 people died of lightning in four Bengal districts. BJP MP Locket Chatterjee visited the affected in Hooghly district yesterday. Today Abhishek Banerjee, the most prominent leader of the TMC after his aunt Mamata Banerjee, will be visiting Murshidabad district. It seems the unusually high rate of lightning during pre-monsoon rain has rattled the politicians who are now embracing themselves for a turf war between the TMC and the BJP.
The unusually high rate of lightning and the death toll has alarmed another group of people also. They are environmentalists. They say this has happened due to increasing pollution levels. While such intense lightning was not known even 20 years ago, the incidence was rising over the years. But this year, thanks to many months of lockdown and other restrictions on industries, the pollution level is supposed to be lower than in the last ten years, particularly in rural areas where the people have died.
Last Monday, lightning killed 26 people in West Bengal. Out of the total toll, 11 died in Hooghly, nine in Murshidabad, two each in Bankura, East Medinipur and West Medinipur districts. All of them were rural people and almost everyone associated with farming. It is not that they were not aware of the danger. They know what type of cloud causes lightning. But the locals of all these areas were quite taken aback at the high rate of continuous lightning. In fact Kolkata and its suburb have also experienced such high rate of lightning and thunder in recent years, though it does not harm the people as tall buildings or trees absorb those.
Apart from the environmentalists, the unfortunate deaths have drawn the attention of the top-level politicians too, particularly because Bengal has become politically sensitive.. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned the loss of lives and approved an ex-gratia of Rs 2 lakh each from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund for the next of kin of those who were killed in lightning. Rs 50 thousand ex gratia for the injured was also announced by the PMO. The state government also announced help. And then politicians have started meeting the people and promising them different bits of help.
But, what about the solution of the real problem? It is true that pollution level will not come down. It will increase rather over the years, particularly if West Bengal can ever attract big industries. So, is there any alternative? Environmentalists are of the opinion that the alternative is to make people aware of the danger. Just like the fishermen and coastal people are alerted before the cyclone, people of polluted rural areas should also be alerted about the increasing menace of lightning.
(The author Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a senior journalist based in Kolkata. He has a wide range of experience in covering West Bengal politics and has authored several books)