The silent adversity
Are heatwaves merely a passing phase or could they be a natural calamity?
Severe heatwave conditions are prevailing over half of India, with temperatures soaring upwards of 45 degree Celsius across large swathes of the country.
This is headline news at the wire, and likewise in many national dailies, TV shows and online media. Soaring temperatures, high humidity in coastal states and extreme dry heat in most of northern and western India; even the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are seeing above normal temperatures. People are suffering, crops are failing and many are dying.
While some governments are taking proactive action — such as the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation by attempting to minimise the urban heat island impact, or the Kerala government including heat management as a part of its health department activities — heatwaves are not yet treated as a disaster costing human life in India.
The number of people dying due to heatwaves has been on the rise in the last decade, with over 2,000 people reported dead during the 2015 heatwave in India. A paper published in Science Advances establishes a mammoth 146 per cent increase in the probability of heat-related mortality in India due to increasing summer mean temperatures.
India is a tropical country, with its people fully prepared to deal with heatwaves year after year, using both ancient wisdom and modern science. Hot and dusty winds, soaring high temperatures, heat strokes and heat-related illnesses have been dealt with by Indians for centuries. What is different now? Why are there more casualties than ever before? Why is the impact so dramatic?
Rising global temperatures are leading to both, an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, cyclones, storms and heatwaves. This relationship between global warming, increase in mean temperature in India by over 0.5 degree Celsius in the last 50 years and the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events has not only been established scientifically by several research studies but also corroborated by actual impact and the resultant loss of life.
It is increasingly evident that heatwaves in India from 1998 to 2018 have been spread out, more intense and have caused a lot more material
damage and damage to the quality of life than what has been reported in the last 100 years. Temperatures have peaked 49 to 50 degree Celsius and have lasted for almost a week, resulting in a large spike in heat strokes, heat-related illnesses and death.
It is time heatwaves are considered a natural calamity that causes death in large numbers and remedial measures, including monetary compensation for both, labour and loss of life, akin to what is provided for flood and cyclones, are created.
The economic impact of heat on labour productivity is another factor that needs to be considered while developing any such compensatory mechanism. The labour population (Urban and rural) is the worst-affected, followed by public service professionals such as police, public transport drivers, parking attendants and security guards.
However, there is no mechanism whatsoever to compensate for either the loss of livelihood or life due to intense heat.
Preparation for heatwaves is still part of either the health department or the urban municipality to deal with while it should ideally be a part of the Disaster Management Authority. It is time heatwaves are treated as a natural calamity and some sort of compensation system is devised while investing more in creating more infrastructure to help people temporarily find shelter and be protected from heat.
Metaphorically speaking, floods, earthquakes and cyclones are akin to acute
illness which gets immediate attention. However, the impact of a heatwave which used
to be like a chronic illness is now taking the form of acute cancerous proportions and demanding immediate attention.
(The author is a Climate Change expert. The views expressed are strictly personal)