A natural disaster nobody gives a damn about: Heat wave kills over 1,000 in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana

The heat wave that is killing people in droves across India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, has reached disastrous proportions; but neither the central government nor the state governments have relief plans in place.

The extreme heat wave, which has swept many parts of the country, has claimed over 1,100 lives across various states, with over 852 death being reported in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana alone.

In Guntur district 130 person have succumbed to the heat wave so far, followed by Visakhapatnam (112), Vizianagaram(78) and Nellore 74, according to the figures available this evening, Special Commissioner for Disaster Management Tulsi Rani said.

The toll in other districts so far is: East Godavari 90, West Godavari 10, Krishna 49, Chittore 29, Kadapa 22, Kurnool 17, Anantapur 14 and Srikaukulam 25.

 A natural disaster nobody gives a damn about: Heat wave kills over 1,000 in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana

Reuters image.

The toll is likely to rise as meteorological offices in the affected states have forecast that the heatwave conditions will continue for some more days. More importantly, people who are exposed to the heat conditions have either no choice or aren’t aware of the danger that they are exposed to. The victims are the elderly, because they are physiologically too vulnerable, and the poor, because they cannot stop working in the sun.

Other than the casual advice through media to avoid exposure to sunlight between 11 am and 4 pm, to drink water and to avoid dark clothes, the state governments have nothing to offer to mitigate the impact of this disaster. Even the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which acknowledges hailstorms as a natural calamity, doesn’t have any prevention or relief plans except a few “do’s and don’ts” . In the affected states, the intervention of relief officials more or less ends with taking the headcount of the dead.

This is not the first time that people have died like flies in heatwaves. In 2002-2003, about 3000 people died in a heatwave that swept Andhra Pradesh. The one-week death toll in the state then was the highest ever in India. The state had witnessed similar prolonged strokes of heat in 1996 and 1998 as well.

Despite its predictable, periodic incidence and high levels of mortality, governments have done precious little to mitigate its impact on people because obviously they don’t care - it’s still not considered a natural calamity. In 2013, the NDMA had decided to recommend to the union home ministry to include heatwave as a natural disaster, but looks like it reached nowhere. In comparison, the cold wave, which also kills hundreds of people during winter, is in the government’s list of natural disasters and the victims are entitled to compensation besides access to other forms of relief.

The only way to prevent deaths from summer heat is to help people stick to the “dos and don’ts” that the NDMA and state governments prescribe. People have to primarily avoid the sun, at least during the peak hours. For it to work, states have to legally mandate that hazardous work has to shut down when the mercury breaches the upper limit. Developed countries have separate standards that define a heatwave. Does India have one? Laughably, following the calamitous spell of 2003, the government intervention was to study the environmental changes that could have caused the higher number of deaths.

It’s time to think about heatwave as a natural disaster and put in place both preventive and mitigatory steps. It’s time to think about summer shelters for the homeless and those who are out in the sun, and distribution of relief supplies so that the poor can avoid hazardous labour. Also required are new safety standards, that also take into account the perils of summer heat, for work that involves exposure to sun.

Although not specific to heatwave conditions, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has laid down conditions to protect workers from “heat-stress”. Factories are mandated to maintain their ambient heat conditions and take clear mitigatory steps if incidences of heat-stress are reported. Perhaps part of what makes governments and others unprepared is the lack of clear international guidelines or (ILO) Code of Practice that acknowledge intense summer heat as a hazardous working condition.

Compared to many of the natural disasters that the NDMA has in its list (avalanches, cyclone, cloud burst, drought, earthquake/tsunami, fire, flood, hailstorm, landslides, pest attack and frost and cold wave), most of the heatwave deaths are preventable because its onset and duration are easily predictable and the relief-measures are simple. It’s such a shame that a country with claims of cutting-edge technological advances and super-power economy doesn’t know how to protect its people from summer heat.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the latest death toll

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Updated Date: May 27, 2015 12:19:49 IST