Of the 1,636 “heat wave” deaths reported between May 15 and May 30 in Andhra Pradesh, only a little over one-third have so far been certified to have been caused by heat.
The number of deaths being reported to mandal officers, Andhra Disaster Management Authority officials say, almost doubled after Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu announced ex-gratia of Rs 1 lakh to the kin of each person who dies in the heat wave.
In neighbouring Telangana, where the government has not declared any ex-gratia, 486 deaths have been reported from 10 districts where temperatures have been consistently high.
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In Odisha, another state from where a high number of heat wave deaths have been reported, of the 115 said to have died since mid-May, 21 have been confirmed so far to have died due to heat stroke.
Odisha has not seen a spike in numbers, unlike Andhra Pradesh, partly due to low ex-gratia for the next of kin of the deceased.
Andhra Principal Secretary and Disaster Management Commissioner Jagdish Chandra Sharma said they had set up a three-member panel in each district “to investigate and report genuine cases” following the “doubling” in reported deaths after the government’s announcement of relief.
The panels include the local tehsildar, local civil assistant surgeon and local police station house officer. They have so far ascertained 511 deaths as caused by heat stroke, making these cases eligible for ex-gratia.
Officials say that the number of reported deaths is also high due to the fact that district control rooms make a note of every call or information reporting a suspected sun stroke death. Only a small number of those are eventually taken up for further investigation.
Last year, soon after the state was bifurcated, over 800 heat wave deaths had been reported in Andhra. Of these, 371 were later confirmed to be related to heat by the ‘Action Taken Report on Heat Wave Conditions in 2014’ of the Disaster Management Authority. The government gave Rs 1.5 lakh compensation to these 371.The state government has not made postmortem a must to certify a death as heat related as several deaths had occurred this year before it acknowledged the prevailing temperatures as a heat wave and announced ex-gratia.
Deputy Chief Minister N Chinarajappa (who looks after Home and Disaster Management) added, “People normally do not agree for postmortem in such cases, and in many instances the deaths are reported after the last rites are done. So the local committees ascertain by taking statements of eyewitnesses and family members that a victim was working in the heat before his death.”
Besides, deaths of persons above the age of 70 are not being taken into account for either investigation or ex-gratia as a majority of these are age-related or due to other illnesses.
For instance, in East Godavari district where 192 heat wave deaths were reported from May 18 to May 30, only 100 cases have been taken up for investigation, of which so far 17 cases have been found to be eligible for ex-gratia.
“The three-member committee is still investigating. At this stage we cannot quantify how many are actually heat wave-related deaths. There may be natural deaths and deaths due to prolonged illness,” District Collector H Arun Kumar said.
In Guntur, where 233 cases have been reported, the district administration has recommended only 130 for investigation, of which 35 have proved to be deaths caused by heat wave so far. Guntur District Collector Kantilal Dande said that in many cases, natural deaths as well as those coming after prolonged illnesses are also being reported as heat related.
“The committees have so far certified only 35. From May 22 to May 27, Guntur experienced 46 degrees Celsius and dozens of deaths were reported daily. I think about 35 per cent of the cases might be genuine,” Dande said.
In Telangana, that has not announced any relief, most of the 10 affected districts experienced temperatures above 45 degrees for nearly four days. In Medak district, where 35 deaths have been reported, District Collector B Rahul said only those cases in which the mandal team could confirm that a person was working in the sun and showed signs of suffering from a heat stroke before dying have been recorded. “In some cases a person may be indoors and suffering from ailment or was already unwell but may have died due to extreme heat. These cases have not been included,” he said.
In Alair in Nalgonda district, two cases reported as sun stroke deaths turned out to be false. “Those who died were old and they had other complications,” says Tehsildar P Rama Murthy.
Since 1998, when a heat wave sweeping through entire Odisha had resulted in 2,042 deaths in the state, the toll has been falling due to a series of steps taken by the government, such as awareness programmes on TV and radio, rescheduling of office hours and restriction on public transport between 12 noon and 3.30 pm.
The relatives of a heat wave victim are entitled to Rs 10,000 compensation after a committee comprising a medical officer and a tehsildar has certfied the death as heat related in Odisha. If the deaths happen in a hospital, then the case records are analysed and the opinion of the doctor is taken as final. Though a postmortem is advised by doctors, it is not mandatory. Besides, no ex-gratia is given if a victim was over 70 years of age.
The youngest victim of the heat wave has been a 10-year-old girl while the oldest ones were three 65-year-old men and a 65-year-old woman.
In Khurda district, where 14 suspected heat wave deaths have been reported this summer, officials have certified only one death as such. “There have not been too many allegations as the kin of the deceased think it is not worth filing a claim for Rs 10,000,” says District Collector Niranjan Sahu.
Incidentally, allegations of heat wave deaths have been minimal from western Odisha districts where the mercury has stayed above 45 degrees Celsius, and more from coastal districts like Ganjam and Kendrapara.
Deputy Relief Commissioner Prabhat Mohapatra also attributes the “low toll” to people heeding warnings over TV and radio. “There is much more awareness than was in 1998. In May you will not find a labourer to work for you.”
While Odisha is all set to hike the ex-gratia for sunstroke victims from Rs 10,000 to Rs 50,000, Odisha Special relief Commissioner G V V Sarma said “they were yet to decide if the same would be applicable with restrospective effect from this April”.