At around 6:30 pm on May 2, the sky suddenly turned a dull yellow in Agra city, Uttar Pradesh. After a few minutes, it was completely dark and a fierce wind began blowing, bringing along with it loads of dust. The speed of the winds increased and the trees started shaking violently. Tin roofs of many shops and houses were blown away. “The hoarding near our tent broke and fell down. We got scared and rushed inside,” says Rahat Ali, who runs a nursery. A few minutes later, hail and rain started pounding the region.
A pall of gloom enveloped Agra district, the epicentre of the massive dust storm that ravaged large parts of India. There were 14 members of Ali’s family inside the tent, including kids. “The winds continued to howl and suddenly we heard two loud, cracking sounds. Two trees had fallen on either side of our tent,” says Ali. The family members started praying, afraid that one more tree falling would end their lives. The fallen trees had blocked their tent and it was only at 11 am the next day that the family managed to come out of their tent, after neighbours cut down large parts of the broken trees.
Since February this year, India has witnessed more than 44 storms in 16 states. About 423 people have been killed and over 785 people have been injured. The storms also caused massive damage to property—almost 5,000 houses collapsed. In some places, wind speeds exceeded 130 km per hour—when the threshold speed for storms is about 90-100 km per hour.
The storms also affected people’s livelihoods. Apart from killing live-stock, standing crops in nearly 0.7 million hectares in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Jammu and Kashmir were destroyed. In Punjab, 0.9 million quintals of harvested wheat were ruined. Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan suffered the maximum damage. State governments are conducting an assessment of the damage, but in Bharatpur district alone, locals say the infrastructure loss could be more than a hundred crores.
“One can earn back the money, but what about the lives lost,” asks 60-year-old Churamal Singh. Singh is a teacher in Junethar village of Deeg tehsil in Bharatpur district. There is damage in almost every house in Junethar, one of the worst affected villages in the region. That evening, six men of the village were in the Maharaja Surajmal College grounds for their exercise routine. When the dust started swirling, the men thought it would pass and waited.
But within minutes, the storm became fierce and blew three of the men into the air, landing them in far off places. The remaining three took cover under a gateway to the college near a large pillar. But the pillar collapsed in a matter of seconds and all three men died instantly. The ones who had been blown away lived to tell the story. One of the men who died, 20-year-old Chandravir, was going to join the Delhi Police on May 15.
Some people consider themselves lucky. Take for instance Arun Kumar of Patholi village of Agra district, who runs a hair cutting salon. His kids were inside the hall when the front portion of the roof started leaking. When Kumar went to check, a portion of the roof collapsed, but Kumar’s family managed to escape to safety.
Many people lost their livelihoods too as cattle, sheep and goats were killed by the storms. In Kheda Karauli village of Kumehr block in Bharatpur district two brothers, Prahlad Singh and Malkhan Singh, lost most of their sheep. In Karahi village in Agra district, Govind Singh Pradhan lost a major portion of his dairy farm. He started the dairy with a loan of R70 lakh under the Kamdhenu scheme in January 2017. Pradhan estimates the loss at around R15 lakh. He says he will now find it difficult to repay the loan.
One of the reasons for the scale of the damage is the poor quality of construction. Houses of poor people were not constructed with high quality materials. At other places, like the massive pillar in Junethar, the structures were not built properly. They lacked proper foundation or binding material like cement which would have provided resistance against the winds and rain.
Bharatpur’s famous honey industry has also been affected. Sunil Kumar Gupta, who runs a honey factory on the Bharatpur-Agra highway, incurred damages of up to R50 lakh. One of the walls of his factory collapsed and fell on the honey drums. The honey flowed out and the rain washed it all into the drain, making recovery impossible. “Had we been alerted, we would have taken precautionary measures,” says Gupta.
“The intensity of the dust storms was unprece-dented,” says J P Singh, chief programme manager of Lupin Foundation, a non-profit in Bharatpur which is working with communities on restoration. “Dust storms are common in this region, but are accompanied by very little rain. But this time it was different—heavy rains, hails and strong winds,” says Puneet Verma, programme coordinator at Lupin Foundation.
In the aftermath of the storms, people are facing two major problems—lack of water and electricity. For instance, in Bharatpur, the storms uprooted some 5,000 electric poles. People are not able to use their water pumps in the absence of electricity. Taking advantage of the situation, water and electric generator suppliers are hiking prices—a bottle of water now costs R50 in Bharatpur, when the actual price is about R5. The cost of hiring an electric generator doubled.
Government agencies are providing relief and compensation, but the pace is slow. Hemant Gera, secretary of Rajasthan’s Disaster Management Authority, says that “two types of relief operations are underway—ex gratia relief to the victims of the dust storm and infrastructure restoration”.
Verma says the weather patterns have changed this year. “Earlier, there used to be 10-15 days of intense heat during spring and early summer, ending in a dust storm with little rainfall. But now that cycle has reduced to 4-5 days and the amount of rainfall has increased, and so have the dust storms,” he adds. Similar tales of changing weather patterns abound from all the other regions and states that witnessed storms this year. But are meteorological and disaster agencies of the government prepared to grapple with the changing nature of weather?