Assam heat wave kills over 10 people

Cyclonic disturbance diverts monsoon winds; tea plantations affected

By Amarjyoti Borah
Published: Monday 17 June 2013

While parts of the country experienced heavy rains, more than 10 people died in Assam in the second week of June when a heat wave hit the north eastern state. According to reports, there have been four deaths in the state capital Guwahati, while two people died in Barak valley, and four more in other parts of the state—all reportedly because of result of extreme heat.
The authorities, however, add that there could be some other factors behind the deaths as well, and the heat wave may not be the only reason. “There could be natural cause behind the deaths as well,” says Kamrup Metro deputy commissioner Ashutosh Agnihotri.

Unexpectedly high temperature

The maximum temperature recorded on June 14 was 39°C—the highest ever in the state. Officials of the India Meteorology Department (IMD) say this is completely unexpected as the state usually experiences a maximum temperature of around 32°C during the month of June.

The highest temperature recorded in the state before June 14 this year was 38.4°C in 1979.

The Met department says that the monsoon arrived in Assam on June 7 and there have been some rains in the state since. “However after two days, there was some development of cyclonic winds in the northwest Bay of Bengal, which diverted monsoon winds, leading to the present rise in mercury levels," says M K Gupta, deputy director general of the regional meteorological centre.

Schools shut

On June 13, when the temperature recorded was 38.8°C, the administrative bodies of several districts asked all schools to declare holidays for two days. In some other districts, timing of classes at schools was changed. Kamrup Metro district initiated the move to shut schools, followed by Dibrugarh and other districts that were affected by the heat wave. “This order was issued due to the ongoing heat wave across the state, and keeping in mind problems school children face in such inclement weather,” says Agnihotri.

The Assam health department says that it published advertisements in all major newspapers in the state, advising people on how to tackle heat stroke, and to stay indoors wherever possible.
In an incident on June 12, at Galaki in Sibsagar district, close to the Assam-Nagaland border, a group of protestors who were on a hunger strike demanding security for the people in villages close to the border of Nagaland, fell ill as temperatures rose; they had to be taken to hospital.

Tea gardens hit

The heat wave has severely affected the tea industry. In Upper Assam, the home of famed Assam tea, work in tea gardens is being affected due to the heat. A half-day holiday was declared on most days of the second week of June in several tea gardens. Usually activity in most gardens in Upper Assam start at 7 am. Over the last few days, labourers have been asked to start work at 6 in the morning as managers of several tea gardens have advised the labourers to start early and finish plucking and retire from the gardens early.

This unprecedented heat wave could have a severe impact on tea bushes if there is no rain in the next few days, say scientists.

The temperature has risen quite high, and is more that what it was around the same time last year. If the trend continues, it will be detrimental to the tea plants, says R M Bhagat, senior scientist at the Tocklai Tea Research Station at Jorhat. “Photosynthesis is affected, which, in turn, adversely affects the growth of shoots. This sudden rise in temperature, which is being witnessed more recently, is an offshoot of climate change triggered by global warming,” says Bhagat. 
Sudipta Nayan Goswami, a Jorhat-based tea planter, points out that the heat wave is a major concern as the shade tree status in most tea gardens in Assam is poor; only about 30 per cent of the area of the plantations gets adequate shade required for the tea to grow.


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