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Monster heat punishes India

Large swathes of India are in the grips of a monstrous pre-monsoon heat wave that has claimed over 150 lives in recent weeks. Most of the deaths recorded due to the heat wave have been from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Odisha. There seems to be no respite from the searing heat with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) saying that the drought-like condition prevailing in the country now will remain for approximately 30 to 45 days. The ongoing drought and severe water shortage in many parts of the country have compounded the problem. Approximately 330 million are likely to be affected by this sweltering heat, according to figures, the Indian government reported to the Supreme Court. Since India’s hottest months tend to be May and June, authorities are seriously concerned about a significant spurt in heat-related deaths in April, this year. Last year, a heat wave claimed close to 2,500 lives, according to official figures. IMD director B P Yadav said farmers faced two deficient rainfall years consecutively and the immediate solution is a good monsoon. The weather office has predicted good forecast and the south-west monsoon rainfall will be above normal in this year. But ten states are presently reeling under drought and water storage in reservoirs is an all time low. The challenges faced by various state governments are complex. But in an initiative that is bound to make their jobs easier, the IMD has started to issue weather advisories for heatwave conditions between April and June. Every fifth day the forecast will be updated and early warnings sent. It is a process the IMD often uses for cyclones and cloud bursts. However, it will be impossible for governments to avoid fatalities. Suffice to say, many of the fatalities include labourers and poor farmers who have little choice but to work outdoors in blistering condition, with temperatures routinely exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.

In response to last year’s devastating heat wave, which claimed the lives of over 2,000 people in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, both state governments have come up with necessary action plans. For example, the Telangana government has started a mass awareness campaign that will use mobile text messages or Whatsapp alerts to circulate heat wave warnings, besides provisions for makeshift medical camps and public cooling stations with drinking water and oral rehydration salts. Workers enrolled under MNREGA have been ordered to avoid the afternoon heat between noon and 3 pm. But with hotter than usual summers predicted this year, public resources will be stretched to the limit. Despite the Telangana government’s best efforts, laborers in the unorganized sector and farmers are bound to suffer. Missing a day of work for them will mean losing out on much-needed pay. From 2000 deaths in 1998 to 67 in 2015, the Odisha government has made a concerted effort to reduce casualties to zero by implementing a concrete heat action plan. For solutions, the state government has looked to Ahmedabad in Gujarat, where the city’s municipal corporation has taken concrete steps to prevent deaths and injury due to prolonged and potentially lethal heat exposure. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation has sought to tackle this climatic menace with a comprehensive Heat Action Plan, which has been in place since 2013. The plan to tackle heat-related deaths will need the collaborative effort of key public institutions. This plan revolves around raising public awareness around simple steps to prevent heat strokes. These include provisions for drinking water, buttermilk, and any other hydrating liquid in public areas, besides telling citizens to stay out of the sun as much as possible. In consonance with Ahmedabad’s plan, the Odisha government has issued alerts for citizens to remain indoors during the hottest part of the days between 11.30 am and 3.30 pm. Among other measures, schools have been asked to remain closed on days when a heat wave is predicted.

Such heat wave action plans will become the norm. “Increasingly, research suggests that these will no longer be emergencies, but the norm: By 2050, the temperatures that are currently endangering lives in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh will be prevalent all over the country,” according to a recent editorial in Scroll.in. “Coupled with conflict over water, this means India is going to be an exceedingly difficult place to survive in for those who cannot protect themselves from the elements.” Even the government has admitted to this fact. “Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon,” India’s minister for science, technology and earth sciences, Harsh Vardhan, said last year. “It’s not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change.”
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