After 14 people died of heatstroke on April 16 at a Maharashtra government event in Khargar, experts and politicians had asked why no there had been warnings about the high temperature. A heat action plan, which prescribes emergency measures and precautions when the temperature exceeds a certain threshold, could have helped prevent a loss of lives in Khargar.

But, as Aditya Valiathan Pillai, co-author of a study that analysed heat action plans in India, told Scroll, these plans are “insufficiently localised”.

“The nature of the heat threat varies from place to place,” said Pillai. “Some places could be hot and dry, like Delhi, while other places could suffer from humid heat, like coastal Karnataka or Chennai.” The study, by the Centre for Policy and Research, analysed 37 heat action plans in states and districts of India.

In Khargar, too, a Scroll ground report found that the closest observatory at Rabale, 20km away, had recorded a maximum temperature of 37.6 degrees that day. But experts had said that because the India Meteorological Department records temperatures with the thermometer placed in a white box in the shade, it was quite possible that the actual temperature was far higher.

In an increasingly warming world, and given India’s vulnerability to extreme temperatures, Pillai says each city and district must have its own customised heat action plan. Excerpts from an interview:

What are the most important findings of your study?
The first, and perhaps most important, thing is that planning for heat waves is more frequent than one might think. We found 37 heat action plans across 18 states that prescribe a wide variety of interventions, which suggests that this is becoming an interesting and important area of India’s climate response. They were spread across levels of government – 15 were state-wide, 13 were district-level, and nine were city-specific. This seems like a good example of a bottom-up climate change response.

Despite this sign of progress, there were several shortcomings. First, we noticed that these plans were insufficiently localised. The nature of the heat threat varies from place to place. Some places could be hot and dry, like Delhi, while other places could suffer from humid heat, like coastal Karnataka or Chennai.

The heat action plans that we analysed generally focused on dry heat and did not factor in humidity or hot nights – both of which could make heat waves deadlier because they overwhelm the body. They also generally fell short of establishing robust localised temperature thresholds – the temperature at which heat becomes dangerous – to declare a heat wave, which varies from place to place based on demographics and built environment.

This means that heat waves could well be declared too early or late. Too early could be expensive and exhausting because extensive emergency measures are put in place before they are needed. Too late and you might lose lives.

They were also insufficiently focused on the social realities of the place. A heat action plan must point out where the most heat vulnerable people are located and who they are. Most heat action plans do well to mention the elderly, women, children, people with diseases, construction and agricultural workers as vulnerable groups.

But in the report, we argue that they must go a step further and conduct vulnerability assessments to determine where the most vulnerable to heat actually live so that when a heat wave occurs, life-saving resources can be diverted to areas with concentrations of the vulnerable. And before summer, these vulnerability maps will tell them where to plant shady trees, improve water resources or change building structures – all of which are long-term heat resilience building actions.

Perhaps most importantly, we found that most heat plans were unfinanced. They also did not specify which legal framework they fell under, which means it is unclear how much authority they carry.

The question that arises then is whether these guidelines are even implementable.

Aditya Valiathan Pillai. Credit: Nadeem Z.

What do you mean by local temperature thresholds?
These are scientifically established temperatures at which heat waves should be declared. For example, if, over a decade, you find that there is a sudden spike in heat-attributable deaths in a city, say 300 more heat deaths when the temperature is 47.6 degree celsius as compared to 47.5 degrees, then the heat wave threshold should be 47.5 degrees.

This is not easy to do. Localisation is really hard without enough data, but that’s the direction things must go. A lot of heat action plans ended up using the Indian Meteorological Department’s national thresholds.

But for that, you would need local data of excess deaths due to heat. Do you think India is documenting cases of heatstroke or heat-related deaths well enough?
That is an important point. Heat death reporting is a very hard policy challenge to solve. Because mortality data is hard to come by, there are no local temperature thresholds, which then goes on to undermine the efficacy of the entire heat action plan. So it has impacts right through the policy response.

There are government mortality estimates. The National Disaster Management Authority has put out data that suggests 26,000 heat-related deaths occurred between 1990 and 2020.

The issue with counting heat deaths is not just limited to India, it is a global problem. Doctors note they are very hard to categorise, and the guidelines vary by country. They can be presented as death due to another cause easily in case of comorbidities.

The most reasonable way to get a count of heat-related deaths is to do an excess mortality study, which is what was done during Covid-19 pandemic. Public health experts look at mortality on a hot day, compare it with the figures on the same date in previous years and establish excess deaths that could be due to a heat spike. This follows established scientific processes. And it has to happen city by city, district by district.

This is a multi-year process. Local and state governments will need to start coordinating with local hospitals and research institutes, because this can’t be done in-house.

Does that also mean we need more weather stations to record local temperature to fix thresholds? In Kharghar, for instance, there was no local weather station.
Definitely. To declare a heat wave, governments need reliable local temperature data. If a weather station is far away, you may have an incorrect picture of the threat to people on the ground. As I mentioned earlier, you may declare a heat wave too soon or too late. You also need local humidity data to accurately understand local risk. Incorrect data can lead to avoidable heat-related illnesses.

In Gurugram during a hot summer afternoon on April 22. Credit: PTI.

Did your analysis include rural areas? Are there specific guidelines for farmers and daily wagers toiling under the sun?
The responsibilities within state and district-level heat action plans in our analysis extend to rural areas, with some plans recognising the vulnerability of farmers and daily wage laborers to heat.

District and state plans have to think about agriculture, which, as we saw last year, is really vulnerable to heat. They need to think about making sure irrigation systems are working, farm labour is protected, livestock is cared for, and so on. These are actions that will have to play out over massive areas, unlike the city plans that have to think about massive populations in small areas. So, the challenges are quite different.

At some point though, as climate change intensifies, these plans will have to start thinking about structural changes in agriculture, such as changing cropping patterns or increasing the uptake of heat-resistant crops in agriculture to safeguard farmers and the consumers from major shocks.

Is there a need to have tailor-made guidelines for a city, and will it be different for a village?
Yes, very much so. They are structurally so different, with cities made of heat-trapping concrete and glass. Both have such different demographics and income profiles. All of these things matter in building heat resilience. Rural implementation of a heat action plan would include measures to protect the agricultural sector and farm labour for example, while cities might focus on limiting the effects of the urban heat island effect (where built-up areas get much hotter than surrounding areas) through trees and other shade measures.

As globally we move towards extreme weather conditions, what immediate steps should India take?
The existence of dozens of heat action plans is encouraging, indicating there is widespread acknowledgement of the threat. But to be effective, these plans should have enough financial support and have independent evaluations of their effectiveness.

India’s states are at the frontlines of climate impacts, so they need scientific and financial resources to be able to prepare. We think improving funding flows from adaptation specific instruments like the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change – which to date has disbursed some Rs 800 crore, not a small amount – and leveraging well-financed central schemes are a good place to start. For example, you could well see the PM Awas Yojana [low-cost housing] or MGNREGA [rural employment guarantee scheme] being used to implement HAP [heat action plan] measures like well-ventilated houses or restoring village water bodies respectively.

On a separate note, it would also be useful to establish a clearer picture of what the long-term economic ramifications of climate change look like for India – add up what the effects of heat, flooding etc will be in the coming decade and where they will be felt. The Stern Review in the UK is an early example of this: it was a useful exercise because totting up economic damages led to alarming numbers that really focused parties on both sides, businesses and civil society on climate action.

A woman covers her child with a cloth on a hot summer day in Jabalpur on April 25. Credit: PTI.

Can you discuss short-term and long-term solutions when it comes to tackling heat waves?
The short-term solutions largely revolve around emergency measures to save lives and assets. These look like classic disaster response measures, things like ambulances for a sudden spike in heat illnesses, or making sure there are enough advisories on advertising billboards in vulnerable areas during a heat wave.

The long-term solutions are slightly trickier to implement and but no less important – they will reduce the need for emergency measures in the future if done right. Think of creating shade through urban afforestation, or awareness building of heat risks within local government through regular trainings, or building a legal framework for heat action plans, or building a research ecosystem, which is important because we are operating on very limited knowledge of how heat interacts with society and we need more India specific studies. And, very importantly, establishing a clearer picture of local vulnerability – where the new migrant construction workers are, which places don’t get water in the summer. That sort of thing.

Are there lessons to be learnt from the Kharghar episode?
Yes, of course. It was a tragedy, and an unusual one because we saw the concentrated loss of life due to heat stroke in a short period of time. Usually heat deaths are hidden because of the difficulties in reporting them, and they are spread out over several wards and districts. As you mentioned earlier, there seems to have been a gap in local temperature data, so it was unclear if it had reached heat-wave conditions at the event premises already, and whether a heat action plan should have kicked in.

The confusion around the existence of such a plan in the hours after the incident was instructive. Media and the commenting public did not know if a plan existed, and what its recommended measures were. In our report, we argue for much more transparency around these plans – for them to be listed online in a central repository hosted by the National Disaster Management Authority. It’s important that we analyse this case and really internalise lessons for the coming months, and years.

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this article.