Heat waves do not kill, poverty and governmental apathy do.
The heat waves in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Odisha, Telangana and other states have killed over 1,200 people so far. The poultry industry in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh has reported high bird mortality and losses amounting to over Rs 100 crore until mid-May. As the disaster management authorities have admitted it is the poor, the ill and the old—the most vulnerable—who are the worst affected. In such circumstances, it is rather odd and verging on mockery for the authorities to urge people to stay indoors for several hours, drink plenty of water (and buttermilk), wear only cotton clothes and so on. Just how are daily wage labourers, drivers of non-air-conditioned vehicles, delivery services’ personnel, workers in industrial units where high temperatures are a constant, the homeless and the destitute to follow this “well-intentioned” advice? To add to the heat waves, power outages and breakdowns are such a common feature in so many parts of the country that staying indoors hardly helps. Some health experts have even called for the declaration of a national disaster given the high death toll (this number only reflects the reported deaths). Instead of bland and useless instructions, what is needed are well-coordinated measures that range from the preventive to the curative.
The lack of such measures is all the more reprehensible because this is not the first time that India is witnessing deaths due to heat waves. The heat waves in 2003 in Andhra Pradesh, in 1998 in Odisha and the 2010 heat wave which was a global phenomenon and affected Ahmedabad badly took thousands of lives. While these years saw exceptionally high fatalities, almost every year the heat waves kill people all over the country, even if in smaller numbers.
What is notable about this phenomenon is that in developing countries its impact tends to be much more severe due to a range of contributory factors like poverty, inequality, lack of public infrastructure and an inability of public bodies to address the symptoms. Added to this there are issues of poor sanitation and a larger disease load for the majority of the population. For people who are unable to get enough nutrition, cannot access medicines and doctors, are without shelter and are unaware of government schemes, the heat spikes lead to spikes in morbidity and mortality.
The city of Ahmedabad and its municipal corporation have been hailed for being the only one in the country to design an action plan and implement it from 2013 onwards. The plan was drawn up by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, the Indian Institute of Public Health, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Georgia Institute of Technology, last two of the United States. It involves disseminating public information about risks and mitigating measures, using social media, establishing a warning system including what-to-do measures for governmental agencies, training of health professionals to respond quickly and effectively, and adapting the city’s infrastructure to deal with extreme temperatures. Odisha too has been conducting an awareness-raising campaign as part of its disaster risk management programme on preventive and curative steps to be taken during heat waves. Some of these successful measures should have been adopted by other cities and state administrations. What stops them?
Perhaps the first step must be the recognition of heat waves as a disaster that affects public health. In 2013, the National Disaster Management Authority had written to the Prime Minister of the need to include heat waves in the list of natural disasters. However, the group of ministers entrusted with the task of taking a decision on the matter did not reach any conclusion. Apart from this, coordination of different government agencies—the most critical aspect of implementation that seems to be a perennially problematic area—is another urgent feature. Studies specifically designed for Indian cities and towns that are dedicated to looking at the impact of heat waves and other data collection measures ought also to receive serious attention. For the long term, the problems related to increasing and haphazard urbanisation, industrial and vehicular pollution and the lack of housing will also need to be the focus of attention. Work schedules, particularly in work which involves physical labour, also need to be changed so that afternoons are kept work free.
We are living in the times of climate change. Some of these intense heat waves are expected to increase in their intensity and spread. We need adaptation measures which address not only the long-term pattern of intense summer heat, which has been a “traditional” killer of the poor and destitute, but also keep in mind the unexpected manner in which these heat waves will come and go. It is a tall task and one which seems herculean for our callous and inept governments. The (lack of) importance given to these issues and the (ab)sense of urgency brought to bear on them can be read to be commensurate with the value placed on the life of the poor, working-class Indian.
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