India’s northern states braced for further dust storms over the weekend, after more than 140 people died in the states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh after a series of severe storms late last week.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, came in for criticism on Friday for continuing to campaign for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in state elections in Karnataka, even as the losses of lives and property in the northern states mounted.
“My heartfelt condolences to the families who have lost their loved ones,” Siddaramaiah, the Congress’ chief minister of Karnataka, who uses only one name, said on Thursday, before adding sarcastically: “I am sorry your [chief minister] is needed here in Karnataka. I am sure he will return soon and attend to his work there.”
Mr Adityanath returned to his state on Saturday to visit hospitals. Mr Modi tweeted on Thursday that he was “saddened” by the loss of lives.
The storms, which began on Wednesday, brought winds at over 130 kilometres per hour, which uprooted trees and demolished small homes. Roads were blocked, preventing relief staff from reaching some of the worst-affected areas. Trains and interstate buses experienced delays.
Mobile telephone networks temporarily collapsed. Electricity poles went down as well, cutting power to parts of at least 20 districts in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The damage was perhaps worst in Agra, the city that’s home to the Taj Mahal, where 43 people have been confirmed dead so far.
Near the Rajasthani town of Jhunjhunu, the storm just skirted past the village of Bajawa, Rohit Chaudhary, who runs a graphic design firm in New Delhi, told The National.
Mr Chaudhary’s parents still live in Bajawa, and he said their house had been spared. “Although she swept a bucket full of dust from the terrace the next day,” he said. “Dust storms here are similar to a dense fog—you can’t see your own hands.”
In Rajasthan, the local name for this kind of storm was a "kaali-peeli," or a "black-and-yellow," Mr Chaudhary said. "It gets so dark—hence the black. And peeli, because of the sun's effect, that kind of yellowish glow."
Deadly India superstorms kill nearly 150
India: top court concerned about Taj Mahal colour change
Mritunjay Mohapatra, the director general of India's Meteorological Department, told reporters on Thursday that high summer temperatures had helped to build a near-cyclonic disturbance above the state of Haryana.
The hotspot combined with a low-pressure system carrying moisture from Eurasia into the Indian subcontinent to produce what Mahesh Palawat, the chief meteorologist at Skymet Weather, a New Delhi-based weather forecasting service, called a “freak storm.”
"Dust storms are not usually this intense," Mr Palawat told the Hindustan Times newspaper on Friday.
The severity of the storm may also owe something to climate change. In 2011, a paper published in Nature argued that air pollution and rising temperatures are worsening storms that build over Asia.
More storms may hit Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan again before May 7, or they may strike further north, in Jammu and Kashmir and the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
Such storms are a common occurrence in the pre-monsoon season, when temperatures over the north Indian plains—and the Rajasthan desert, in particular—soar well above 40 degrees Celsius. The monsoon is scheduled to hit India in six weeks’ time.
Hemant Gera, secretary for disaster management and relief in Rajasthan, said that this storm was the worst he had ever seen during his 20 years in his post.
“Whenever we’ve issued an alert in recent times, it has been a yellow alert, which warns about probable storms,” Mr Gera said. The storm duly appeared, but the Meteorological Department—which admitted that its Doppler radar system in Rajasthan hadn’t been working for the past ten days—was unable to determine the intensity of the wind and rain.
The yellow alert remains in place for Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh until Monday, and Mr Gera cautioned people to stay indoors and not venture out. If the warning level is raised to orange or red, people are expected to “be vigilant” or stay on “high alert” respectively.
In both Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, the state governments have announced 400,000 rupees in compensation to the next of kin of each of the deceased. Rajasthan will pay out between 60,000 and 200,000 to each of the injured, depending upon their condition, whereas Uttar Pradesh will pay 50,000 to each of the injured.