The heat wave coursing through the country has left a trail of nightmarish scenes: four tourists dying on a train from Agra to Coimbatore, water riots in Bundelkhand, temperature in some cities touching 50 degrees Celsius. Already, the heat has killed 36 people this summer, according to government figures. That is a drastic rise from nine in 2015, when India experienced its last severe heat wave.
India saw its longest heat wave spell in 1988. As of June 13, it will have matched this record. This year, the heatwave has scorched 23 states. To deepen the dystopia, Cyclone Vayu is expected to lash coastal Gujarat on Thursday even as the rest of the country continues to simmer.
Scientists say it is clear that climate change will cause more extreme weather events and record-breaking temperatures: 2014 was the warmest year in global temperature records that go back to the 1880s. Globally, the rise in heat-related deaths is stunning: from less than 6,000 in 1991-2000 to 136,000 in 2001-2010, says a National Disaster Management Authority report.
This decade has also seen the mercury spiking to deadly effect. The 2010 heatwave that spread across the northern hemisphere killed hundreds in India. In 2015, when roads melted under the blazing sun, about 2,400 people died. According to government figures released in January this year, more than6,000 people have died of heat since 2010. And even these may be low estimates.
The government response to these disasters remains woefully inadequate. The problem begins with definitions. Neither the National Disaster Management Act of 2005 nor the National Policy on Disaster Management, 2009, recognise heat waves as a natural calamity so few resources are allocated to dealing with them.
Besides, the government has been known to routinely underestimate heat wave tolls. It only counts heat strokes and heat wave deaths, which are underreported to begin with. It also ignores fatal physiological symptoms exacerbated by heat stress. These lacunae, in turn, have impeded better policies being framed to beat the heat, such as the development of early warning systems and public health preparedness.
According to the disaster management authority, 2010 was a “wake up call” for “intergovernmental action” and in 2016, a new action plan was drafted at the national level. It accurately identified many of the areas that required focus – the need to recognise it as a natural disaster, better data collection, issuing alerts, mapping out communities most at risk, setting up “public cooling places”.
By some accounts, heatwave deaths went down last year thanks to a few effective measures: public outreach campaigns, pouring water on roads to prevent them from melting, leaving park gates open all day so people could take refuge there. But given the magnitude of the problem and predictions that it will only get worse, much more needs to be done.
The poor and the homeless, who work or sleep outdoors, are the worst affected. The occupational health standards of those most exposed to heat, such as farmers, traffic policemen and construction workers, must be reviewed. Cities need to conserve water bodies and green spaces, build heat shelters and infrastructure that can withstand heat. Of course, recognising the scale of the problem would be a good start.