A 12-year-old girl in Beed, Maharashtra has become one of the latest casualties of the heat wave that has gripped India for several weeks and shows no signs of letting go. The girl, who had made several trips to a water pump in the district suffering severe water shortage, collapsed from dehydration and died of a heart attack.
The number of heatstroke deaths this year is estimated to have crossed 100, but even official estimates from state governments are hazy. Odisha reported 45 deaths but officials from the state disaster management authority say that, on conducting postmortems, many of these deaths have been found to be from other causes. Confusion abounds in Telangana where the government put out a release on April 6 saying that 66 people had died in the heat wave but later revised that number to only 19 this week. Assessing which deaths are heat-related is an important exercise for families to claim compensation that state governments are doling out to victims of the heat wave.
The fact remains that India has a terrible track record when protecting people from heat wave – a record that's only been growing worse over the years. Since 1992, there have been 22,562 deaths due to heat waves. In the last 23 years, India has had no fewer than 393 deaths in a single year. Between 1992 and 2004, the annual death toll crossed 1,000 twice – in 1995 and 1998. Since then, more than thousand people died in seven heat waves. The worst summer in terms of the sheer number of casualties was 2015 when 2,422 died.
The National Disaster Management Authority says in its guidelines on heat waves that it is likely that the actual death toll is higher than these reported numbers because heat-related illnesses are often recorded inaccurately and figures from rural areas are difficult to get.
Much of heat wave mortality is due to rising temperatures. Scientific analyses show that maximum temperatures during summer have been rising over the years and the number of heat wave days has been increasing across north and northwest India, central India, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Researchers have also warned that heat waves over India are only set to get worse in the coming years.
Despite these studies and warnings, cities and states have only slowly begun to implement heat action plans that provide early warnings about dangerously high temperatures and guidelines on how to stay safe during heat waves. Even where such action plans have been implemented, workers who depend on daily wages risk working through the hottest afternoon hours. The NDMA lists vegetable vendors, auto repair mechanics, cab drivers, construction workers, police personnel, road side kiosk operators, the homeless and the elderly as particularly vulnerable to heat waves. For many like Yogita, the 12-year-old victim in Beed, there is is no choice but to risk the sun to get to water.
This year, at least 33 crore people in 56 districts across 10 states have already been affected by the heat and drought, the government submitted in a report to the Supreme Court. The report admits that the number might be much higher with states like Bihar and Haryana not yet declaring districts as drought-affected.