Since April 1, more than 600 persons in India have been killed by the deadly heat wave that has enveloped the country. One of the most affected states, Andhra Pradesh, reported 542 fatalities as the temperature hovered above 45°C across the state. However, heat waves that have claimed 1,300 lives (deaths directly attributed to sun stroke in official records) between 1998 and 2012 are yet to be recognised as a natural calamity.
| Criteria for declaring heat wave
Heat wave onset is considered only after maximum temperature of a station reaches at least 40°C in the plains and at least 30°C in hilly regions
When normal maximum temperature of a station is less than or equal to 40°C
When normal maximum temperature of a station is more than 40°C
- Heat Wave Departure from normal is 5°C to 6°C
- Severe Heat Wave Departure from normal is 7°C or more
When actual maximum temperature remains 45°C or more, irrespective of normal maximum temperature, heat wave should be declared.
- Heat Wave Departure from normal is 4°C to 5°C
- Severe Heat Wave Departure from normal is 6°C or more
Source: India Meteorological Department
Affected states like Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have requested the Central government to recognise heat wave as a calamity. According to officials from the National Disaster Management Authority, the Centre is considering their request.
On May 28, Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority stated in a release that 542 persons have perished under extreme heat conditions since April 1. According to T Radha, state commissioner for disaster management, most deaths occurred due to sunstroke between May 21 and May 28.
Among the affected areas, Adilabad and Karimnagar districts reported 43 deaths each as temperatures touched a maximum of 46°C and a minimum temperature stayed at 38°C. Earlier, in a heat wave in 2003, the death toll on Andhra Pradesh had touched 3,000 (official records downplay the figures).
Shift in heat wave pattern
In the same year, a committee of scientists, C V V Bhadram, B V S Amatya, K Krishna Kumar and G B Panth, were appointed by the state government to conduct a study on the severe heat wave conditions in the state.
They found that the severe heat wave experienced in recent times had shifted from the interior parts of Andhra Pradesh to coastal areas. Strong and hot, dry winds from the interior of the state had contributed to the overall increase in temperatures in the state.
The heat wave period too has increased from seven days to 19 days. The committee observed that since 1990, the severity of heat waves has increased in the region, mostly due to local atmospheric changes. With another heat wave in the state this year, Andhra Pradesh is planning to appoint yet another committee in the state to look into the underlying cause.
Radha, while announcing the death toll figures, said that 542 is just a conservative estimate as in many cases it is difficult to determine the exact cause of death.
Sources in the Disaster Management Authority estimate that more than 800 persons may have died since April 1 as temperatures soared in the state. “We have asked the 14th Finance Commission to include heat wave as a natural calamity in the list of the disasters,” said Radha on Tuesday.
Official records downplay deaths
Neighbouring Odisha, which experienced one of the worst cases of heat wave in the recent past in 1998 had its chief minister, Naveen Patnaik writing to the Finance Commission to include heat wave in the list of the disasters.
Two persons have died of sunstroke in the state this year. Incidentally, Odisha is one of the first states where heat wave advisories are issued by the state disaster management authorities to contain death. In 1998, the state lost 2,042 lives due to the extreme heat conditions. Official estimates attribute fewer deaths to sun stroke.
It was only under the 13th Finance Commission that cold wave was recognised as a natural calamity among 11 natural disasters notified for the release of compensation of Rs1.5 lakh under the National Disaster Response Fund. NDRF officials say that heat wave was not considered despite representations from Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. At present, Rs 50,000 is given by the states to the kin of victims of heat wave.
| Ahmedabad gets its act together
In May, 2010, as many as 51 persons in Ahmedabad, mostly senior citizens, died of sunstroke when the mercury rose to 46.5°C. City administrators consider the year as an eye opener; they witnessed humble shanties turning into solar ovens, causing sunstrokes. They set to work to tackle the problem. This year, the city municipal corporation has launched a heat action plan which is said to be one of the “first comprehensive early warning system and preparedness plan for extreme heat events in India”.
The plan “creates immediate and longer-term actions to increase preparedness, information-sharing, and response coordination to reduce the health impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable populations.” The plan includes issuing alerts, especially to the communities mostly exposed to heat, which includes construction workers and slum dwellers. Thereafter, activation of the “cooling places” such as malls, temples, night shelters for those without access to electricity or water during the peak summer season and stopping all the unnecessary usage of water. The plan also seeks to monitor daily temperatures and other indicators to issue alerts well ahead of time.
According to Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation officials, the plan has already being implemented as steering committees have been created in most of the municipal wards, while various dos and don'ts have been issued to schools and other institutions to beat the heat wave. The plan also calls for monitoring various heat wave induced health ailments.
For two years, a number of organisations collaborated to formulate the plan for Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. The consortium included global environmental research think tank, Climate and Development Knowledge Network, National Research Development Corporation (NRDC), Indian Institute of Public Health, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (USA) and Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University (USA).
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