In 2012, after three consecutive intense winters took hundreds of lives across North India, the Indian government decided to officially recognise “cold wave/frost” as a “natural calamity”. This made affected populations eligible for financial assistance from national and state disaster funds.

This summer, heat wave conditions across the country have already caused more than 1,400 deaths – 900 in Andhra Pradesh alone – but heat waves are not yet designated as natural calamities in India.

In 2013, the Manmohan Singh-led government had constituted a group of ministers to consider adding heat waves to a list of natural calamities that features earthquakes, hailstorms, droughts, cyclones, landslides and even pest attacks. The group, however, did not end up taking any decision.

Now, with the heat-related death toll soaring higher every day, everyone from public health workers and politicians to senior members of the National Disaster Management Authority want heat waves to be declared an official calamity.

The 2013 missed opportunity

Two years ago, when Congress politician Marri Shashidhar Reddy was heading the NDMA, he was keen to see heat waves being taken seriously by the government and took up the issue with then prime minister Manmohan Singh.

“If cold waves can be treated as a natural calamity, heat waves are the other end of the spectrum and should logically be recognised too,” said Reddy, whose home state, Andhra Pradesh, had seen more than 1,150 heat wave deaths in 2013. The national death toll that year crossed 1,450.

“At that time, some members of the home ministry felt that heat wave deaths could not be quantified because the cause of death in such cases is not easily identifiable,” said Reddy.

Since the issue was contentious, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh minister set up a group of ministers comprising Sharad Pawar, Sushilkumar Shinde, P Chidambaram, Harish Rawat and Montek Singh Ahluwalia to discuss the matter. Before the group could arrive at any conclusions or offer any advice, however, it was time for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. With the new government, the old group of ministers was disbanded, but Reddy is disappointed that the issue has also been put on the back burner.

Adding to the concern is the fact that heat-related deaths have almost always been under-reported. A recent report by India Spend points out that in the decade between 2004 and 2013, there has been a 61% rise in the number of deaths caused by heat strokes across India.

A disaster that’s entirely preventable

Survivors of natural calamities featured on the official list can claim compensations of at least Rs 1.5 lakh each from government authorities, but that is not the only advantage of a phenomenon being officially recognised as a calamity.

“The question of compensation comes later, but for now, we need to focus on prevention of deaths,” said Kamal Kishore, one of the three senior members in charge of the NDMA. “We do think that heat waves should be recognised as a natural calamity in which fatalities are entirely preventable. And for now, as far as our response to this year’s heat wave is concerned, we are already treating it as a natural disaster and working with the states accordingly.”

Heat waves, Kishore explains, require a very decentralised and multi-disciplinary response with different ministries and departments of the government coordinating effectively. “Besides providing shelter and water to the affected people, there are many simple, low-cost solutions involved, like putting out basic awareness information,” said Kishore. Implementing these solutions would be far easier if heat waves were given official recognition.

Awareness helps

Awareness programmes about dealing with extreme heat may seem simplistic and obvious – they involve putting out public health information such as the importance of hydrating the body and staying sheltered indoors in the afternoons.

“But international studies have shown that such simple awareness programmes do actually help save lives,” said Gulrez Azhar, a former assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health, one of the organisations that helped develop the successful Ahmedabad model of responding to heat waves that the city authorities adopted in 2013.

In its detailed study of the deadly 2010 heat wave in Ahmedabad, the IIPH found that the number of deaths cause by heat strokes were highly under-reported and that the most vulnerable populations were construction workers and children, the elderly and women from slum settlements.

“The number of deaths caused by heat waves is insidious and there is a magnitude of difference between reported deaths and actual ones,” said Azhar.

Putting heat waves on the list of natural calamities would serve to formalise attempts to prevent fatalities.

With other natural disasters like cyclones or floods, Reddy points out, India is improving its abilities to predict and prepare for them. “With heat waves, the connection between the meteorological department’s forecasts and each state’s disaster management authority has not been very effective,” he said. “If heat waves are recognised as a natural calamity, this connection could be improved in order to prevent the loss of human lives.”