India is reeling under heat. Unprecedented atmospheric temperatures and ambient temperatures are taking a heavy toll on the most visible form of life – human beings. We also know people are dying and farm animals are dying. We do not know about wildlife and life which is not even in our radar, including bacteria, insects, plants and trees. With groundwater levels depleting beyond the reach of tree roots and deep borewells, soil moisture is completely absent. Grass blades are rarity, having left to fend for themselves. Farm animals do not have fodder and water. Owners of farm animals themselves do not have water and food. Is it a drought or a mere heat wave? Or, the preliminary steps in desertification? Desertification possibly means things may not be normal, once rainfall happens. Water will roll off the dry patches of land, with nothing to hold on, gathering speed and whatever can float, washing off modicum of soil. There is no opportunity for water to sink and no system that can enable it to the fullest extent possible.
Across the world, many countries have also witnessed and are already dealing with rise in temperatures. Britain, Yugoslavia seem to have their own plans. WHO has also issued some plans. In India, Gujarat and Maharashtra had their plans two years back. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh developed their heat wave action plans, this year, that too after Court ordered them to do so. However, deaths due to sun stroke have increased in both these States enormously, in the last two years. Yet, administration and elected leaders in these States continue to ignore this problem. Media confines to mere reporting of deaths. Much of the news reports focus only on water shortages, and not much on drought and heat strokes.
In Andhra Pradesh, contrary to normative thinking, deaths have been reported maximum in Vishakhapatnam and other coastal districts, and not Rayalaseema. Similarly, in Telangana, Mahbubnagar reported the maximum. Also, though the number of hot days were maximum in 2010, in united AP, deaths increased 10 times more in 2014 and 2015. Even this year, both the States have been reporting deaths due to sun-stroke, or heat waves.
Heat wave, or temperature rise, impact is disproportionate and is definitely linked to more number of factors than fathomed. Vulnerability studies are required to assess why and what circumstances these deaths are happening, and who are these persons. Unlike any disaster, this disaster if one can call that, has different characteristics, than say floods or drought. Historicity of the causative factors seems to have measure of impact. Geographical area linked vulnerabilities do also play their role on the impacts.
Heat Wave Action plans to date seem to be dependent on temperature fluctuations, as recorded by the Meteoreology department, and alerts are issued based on these variations. However, field observations and data shows that this may not be sufficient. It has to be fortified with socio-economic and importantly bio-indicators. Epidemiological studies of heat wave impacts can also help in establishing early warning indicators at the local level.
Heat wave alerts can at best galvanise administration, but people have to be activated through prior knowledge and development of local mechanisms. Current heat Wave Action Plans fall far short of expectations and imagination. Despite a overemphasis on issuance of heat wave alerts, these action plans do not lay out who can play what role and how. A alert should have certain administrative framework of action, which is lacking.
Local indigenous knowledge, food consumption pattern and access to such foods and liquids should also be part of these heat wave action plans. Distribution of ORS packets can be at best be symptomatic relief and cannot be a solution for all situations. Access to water continues to be a major issue. Even if its available at home, it is not available during travel and at work. With rural incomes dipping dangerously, purchasing power has nosedived, creating a problem of access to nutritious and energising food.
Panchayats have to be made basic units of these Plans. Budgets and administrative processes have to be developed. Unfortunately, we are in the midst of worst heat wave conditions, and the Action Plans are on paper. Manual labour, hotel cooks, brick kiln workers, construction workers and many other people involved in various professions need relief in terms of timings and work schedules. Age and gender fallibility to heat stroke is a known factor: children, women, old and infirm are at greater risk. Exhaustion from heat, inaccessibility to water, food and rest, can cause rapid dehydration and can be fatal. Labour laws have to be changed. Old pensioners, women and disabled persons, dependent on state doles, queue up before ‘welfare’ departments in hot conditions, merely because government employees chose to attend their duties between 11 am to 4 pm, assured as they are by fans and air conditioners. Welfare departments have to change their work schedules as well. A heat wave alert should trigger such changes.
Heat Wave Action Plans of both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh need lot of improvement and imaginative procedures and mechanisms. Consultation mechanisms have to be built in. Non-governmental players have to be involved at different levels, and not just in distribution of ORS packets. Social consciousness should lead to conscientious efforts and resource sharing. Ownership of natural resources has to be forgotten in stressed times, giving way to sharing, equity and justice. Only then, deaths of such unfortunate children as below can be avoided.