Natural Disasters

Blazing India: Odisha’s work not yet over

The state has certainly been able to reduce heatwave deaths by putting very strong prevention measures. However, its efforts to build long-term resilience need to be strengthened

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Monday 01 July 2019
The Odisha state flag waving against the bright sun. Photo: Getty Images

Gobinda Deep has been a daily wage labourer for the past 20 years.

Working in Khetrajpur, the main wholesale market of Sambalpur in western Odisha, Deep has been facing a lot of hardship during summer, when temperature shoots up to above 40 degrees Celsius (°C) for weeks.

“It becomes very difficult to work after 10 am. The heat becomes unbearable,” Deep told Down To Earth.

Deep, who earns around Rs 100 daily, skips work on some days to avoid the heat, but staying at home is also not easy for him and his family because the small house in a slum feels like an oven.  

Temperatures have been quite high across Odisha this year. They have been invariably above 40°C between April 15 and May end. It continued in June too.

This year, the temperature in Sambalpur has been among the highest in Odisha. On June 11, it breached the 45°C mark. On subsequent days, the city clocked 45.8 °C and 45.6°C, making the city the hottest place in the state

The India Meteorological Department issued a heat wave warning in the 10 western Odisha districts of Sambalpur, Jharsuguda, Sundargarh, Deogarh, Angul, Bargarh, Sonepur, Balangir and Nuapada as 13 places repeatedly recorded temperatures of above 40°C, which were the season’s highest.

But high temperature was not confined to western Odisha alone. In coastal Odisha too, high temperature coupled with humidity, crippled normal life. Bhubaneswar had a humidity level of 60 per cent, followed by Cuttack’s 57 per cent. Both cities clocked over 40°C on several days in June.

“We cannot work due to sweating,” said Akash Digal, a construction labourer in Bhubaneswar who earns around Rs 350 a day.

Digal said though the government’s advisory for heat wave said all works should be stopped between 11 am and 3.30 pm, the contractors made them work in intense heat even at 2 pm.

“I must have skipped work at least for 15 days in the last one-and-a-half months to escape working in scorching heat, thereby losing on my wage,” he said.

However, Bainsi Digal, a trolley puller who transports furniture and other consumer goods, has to work even in peak heat hours with only a towel wrapped around his head. He is at the beck and call of the shop keepers. Besides, he said, there was no point in staying at home, which was equally hot.  

Still some way to go

Odisha is not new to heatwaves. In 1998, over 2,000 people died due to a heatwave in the state.

Since then, the state government has stepped up its mitigation efforts and has been able to reduce death tolls, though heat wave conditions have increased over the last two decades.

The reported death toll after 1998 has mostly been in two-digits except for 2005 and 2010, when 237 and 109 persons died respectively. This year, 39 persons have reportedly died due to the heatwave so far, with the government confirming just one death.   

The Odisha government has opened facilities to treat sunstroke patients since March. Since 2015, the government has declared heatwaves as ‘natural disasters’ and a compensation of Rs 50,000 is given to the family of the victim who succumbs to a heatwave.

“People are generally aware now about heatwaves. Most stop working during peak hours,” said Odisha special relief commissioner Bishnupada Sethi.

Enter climate change

Sethi said the maximum temperature has mostly hovered around 45°C in the state for the past several years. However, he added that it needed thorough analysis to see if the frequency of heat wave has increased.  

Environmentalists and researchers claim that climate change is increasing the length and intensity of heatwave periods. Local development works too have added to heatwaves, they say.

In Odisha, most of the mining and industrial areas like Sundargarh, Sambalpur, Jharsuguda, Talcher and Angul have always been high temperature zones.   

“The frequency of heatwaves has been more and so, the number of days having heatwaves has increased,” said Sarat Chandra Sahu, director of Centre for Environment and Climate at SOA Deemed to be University in Bhubaneshwar.

Sahu said in Odisha, heatwaves were formed in the interior parts, around the Keonjhar-Sundargarh border and then spread across the state. According to him, the temperature is higher in western Odisha because there is no sea breeze or moisture.

“Odisha has certainly been able to reduce heatwave deaths by putting very strong prevention measures. However, the state’s efforts to build long-term resilience to heatwaves need to be strengthened,” said environmentalist Ranjan Panda.

Panda said natural forests played the most important role in reducing the impact of heat and length of heat stress periods.

“But we are unfortunately entering into a planning domain where planting seedlings is being equalled to creating forests. That process needs to change and we need to preserve our matured trees and natural biodiversity rich forest,” he said.

Panda said Odisha’s development plans needed to tune to forests and not vice versa, because promoting more concrete structures at the cost of green vegetative covers, multiplied the impact of heat stress.

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