The abundant rainfall this monsoon season has almost eclipsed memories of the strong heat wave that prevailed in March and April this year, much earlier than it is usually expected. Intense heat in those months, and reports of several heat-related deaths in Maharashtra as early as in March, had led to fears of a repeat of the tragedy of 2015, when over 2,000 people were reported to have died because of heat-related complications.
By the time the monsoon had set in over the whole of the country in the second week of July, and the possibility of a fresh heat wave was practically over, a surprisingly happy picture emerged. Thanks to a few commonsense and proactive steps taken by the state governments, heat-related deaths have come down by almost 90% in the last two years — from 2,040 in 2015 to just 222 by the second week of July, according to data compiled by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the apex body to draw up policies, plans and guidelines for disaster management, and ensure timely and effective response to disasters.
This has happened despite the fact that some of the areas most prone to heat waves recorded a larger number of heat-wave days this year compared to 2015. For example, there were 23 days between March and May this year when some part of Telangana registered heat wave conditions. In 2015, by contrast, Telangana had only 13 days of heat waves, all in the month of May. Andhra Pradesh saw only 10 days of heat waves in 2017, compared to 16 days in 2015.
The sharp decline in the number of heat-related deaths is not due to under-reporting, as it happens frequently in a range of situations in the country. Starting 2015, the NDMA has begun a process of verifying each report of a heat-related death, and seeking a certificate from the district authorities. In the first year, 2,040 out of a total 2,500-odd reported cases could be confirmed as having resulted from exposure to excessive heat. This year, the number of reported cases was barely over 300, out of which 222 could be verified and attributable to heat.
“Since 2015, when we began monitoring heat wave deaths, NDMA has been trying to get every reported death verified by the local administration. Each of these deaths, therefore, has been certified by the district or state administration to have actually occurred due to heat wave,” Anup Kumar Srivastava, a consultant working on the heat wave programme of the NDMA, said.
Interestingly, the total number of people reporting heat-related illnesses has actually increased during this three-year period. In 2015, a total 32,831 people were reported ill, while this year, the number rose to 39,522. The higher number indicates swifter response to complaints from patients. “In 2015, we at the NDMA had been doing an analysis of natural disasters and other calamities, and we noticed that the maximum number of deaths that year were caused by heat waves. We realised that these deaths could be easily avoided if we took simple precautions and were slightly careful,” V Thiruppugazh, joint secretary in the NDMA, told The Indian Express.
The unprecedented number of deaths in 2015 forced the authorities to think of response measures. Ahmedabad, the first city to develop a heat wave response system in 2013 following its dreadful experience with heat in 2010, offered a model. Thanks to prodding by NDMA, nine state governments prepared and implemented heat action plans in the last two years. The plans involved relatively simple and straightforward measures like ensuring adequate drinking water supply in public places and a slight change in office and school timings to avoid peak heat hours during the day. This, coupled with a targetted awareness campaign, including temperature alerts and instructions to avoid heat, helped bring down deaths.
The results had, in fact, become evident last year itself. Deaths came down to almost half the 2015 number. State governments and local authorities, therefore, had extra reason to press ahead with heat action plans this year.
So, governments including those of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka shut offices, schools and colleges in heat-prone districts during the peak heat hours. Schools were instructed to ensure that children were dropped back home before 1 o’clock in the afternoon. MGNREGA work was stopped during these hours. In Ahmedabad, construction projects were persuaded to give their workers a two-hour break. Public parks, which used to be open only in the evenings, were made accessible throughout the day to enable people working in the open, like rickshaw-pullers, traffic policemen, and vendors, to rest under trees. Governments ensured adequate free drinking water at public places. Oral rehydration solutions (ORS) were distributed freely. Social media platforms were harnessed to spread awareness and to communicate advisories.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has begun issuing heat wave bulletins from last year. These were broken down into local alerts by municipal authorities to issue warnings to citizens. Apart from the heat action plan at the state level, at least 17 cities developed their own specific plans that included public education, warnings for high temperatures, and suggestions to withstand excessive heat. These cities included Nagpur, Gondia, Chandrapur, Akola and Jalgaon in Maharashtra, and Bhubaneswar, Puri, Koraput and Baleshwar in Odisha.
“None of these measures required any special investment in terms of labour or capital. These were simple solutions and yet have had a very powerful impact in the last two years. These simple measures would have saved hundreds of lives in many states in these last two years,” said Dr Parthasarthy Ganguly of the Gandhinagar-based Indian Institute of Public Health. Dr Ganguly has been actively involved with the heat response system in Ahmedabad, developed in collaboration with the state government and Natural Resources Defence Council, a non-governmental organisation that works in the field of environment and natural resources.
Continuous monitoring by district and municipal authorities, as well as the NDMA, helped too. NDMA organised several workshops and meetings with state governments in the past two months, and prepared guidelines for heat action plans in every state.
What hasn’t changed in the last two years, however, is the fact that a vast majority of heat-related deaths continue to be reported from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha. In 2015, these three states accounted for all but 17 deaths, which happened in Gujarat. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana alone reported 1,963 deaths, while Odisha saw 60 deaths. This year, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana together have reported 182 of the 222 deaths, while Odisha has reported 17.
There are climatological reasons for Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha being the epicentre of heat related deaths. In April and May, the dynamics of the wind systems coming from the southwestern parts of India, and those flowing in from the northwestern parts work in such a manner that the heat over the northern plains and central India is pushed over these three states, raising temperatures unusually higher than normal.