While the Central government has been keeping a tab on heatwaves since 2014, officially, it has refused to declare them as natural disasters
A heatwave is an ‘extreme weather event’ but the government does not keep data related to casualties caused by heatwaves, Union Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Babul Supriyo told Parliament on June 28.
He gave details of all extreme weather events in India since 2014, from when the government has been considering heatwaves as extreme weather events.
The revelation contradicts what the Centre claims. It has never declared heatwaves as extreme weather events and never declared them as natural disasters despite heavy causalities every year between March and June.
It, however, keeps a track and maintains records for other extreme weather events like coldwaves, earthquakes, floods, excessive rains and cyclones.
Heatwaves cause the third-highest number of deaths among natural disasters in India, after lightning strikes and earthquakes; but the government did not consider them as natural calamity.
In fact, the India Meteorological Department came up with advisories for heatwaves only in 2016 — the first time in the institution’s 140 year-old history. According to Supriyo’s response, though, it has been taking note since 2014.
This raises questions as to why the government has been dilly-dallying on extreme heatwave events by not maintaining casualty data.
Supriyo claims that the data on deaths due to heatwave is not being maintained centrally. However, he also said the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) in the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has been maintaining data about deaths reported due to heat-related illness during the last five years.
The heatwaves of 2015 and 2016 had killed 2,040 and 1,111 people across India respectively. In 2017, heatwaves killed 384, in 2018, they killed 25 and in 2019, 94 (until mid-June).
In nine out of the 10 years through 2017 India suffered heatwaves, with the totaL death toll at close to 8,000 people. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were particularly vulnerable.
Policy shift needed
According to IDSP, four common health ailments resulting from excessive exposure to heat include dehydration, cramps, exhaustion and heatstroke. There is also a sharp rise in the number of cases of acute gastroenteritis and food poisoning due to spoilage of food and reduction of its shelf life due to high temperatures.
Alcohol and its fermentation/conversion can also lead to poisoning. There is also a rise in the number of cases of anxiety, palpitations, nervousness and behavioural change linked to extreme temperature rise.
The occupational profile of most of the victims has been ascertained to be agricultural labourers, coastal community dwellers, and people living below the poverty line, with mostly outdoor occupations.
In June 2019, many parts of India witnessed extreme heatwaves, which made certain state governments impose Section 144 to restrict people from coming out of their homes during the day.
With the rise in temperature due to climate change, mostly deprived and poor people would be affected. According to experts, if the government declares heatwave as a natural calamity it will have to compensate victims, like in other calamities.
The government should shun its unnecessary ‘fears of providing monetary compensation’ attitude and recognise this problem in order to find a solution in a place. That is only way forward.
Jitendra is a senior journalist with Down To Earth
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