Mercury rising

The heat wave that is sweeping across India is reported to have claimed over 250 lives so far. With the worst of summer not yet over and the mercury not expected to dip anytime soon, the death toll could rise. Sriganganagar in Rajasthan is sizzling hot at 49.3 degrees centigrade, while the temperature at Jalgaon in Maharashtra touched 49 degrees. It is not just the plains that are reeling under the heat. The Himalayan foothills are experiencing a summer of unprecedented heat. The temperature in Shimla has crossed 31 degrees this year. As if the searing heat isn’t bad enough, people are having to endure severe water shortages and long power cuts. Soaring temperatures and the rapidly rising number of cases of heat stroke being reported in hospitals has sent alarm bells ringing. There is concern that this year’s heat wave could be as severe as those in 1998 and 2003, when 2,541 and 1,210 people died.

Everyone is cursing the heat. Indeed, it is hard to endure. While the heat wave has made daily life immensely uncomfortable, it is not heat by itself that kills people. There are places on the Earth that are far hotter but few of these report the number of deaths that India does when heat waves strike. It is poverty, not heat that kills people during heat waves. The heat wave is only the proximate cause or the trigger.

That 80 per cent of the victims of heat waves live below the poverty line is telling. The poor do not have the means to protect themselves from the heat. The government has issued advisories asking people to stay indoors if possible. But how can the homeless stay indoors? Or rickshaw pullers or those engaged in construction or farm labour? These are daily wage earners. Poverty drives them to work out in the open, whatever the temperature outside. Health authorities are telling the public to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. But what has the government done to provide safe drinking water? In much of rural India, people have to walk at least 10 km to access water.  They cannot in summer. The poor suffer malnutrition. Their immunity is low and hence they are easy prey to heat strokes.  Weather experts are predicting warmer summers in future. The government needs to tackle poverty to improve people’s capacity to cope with hotter summers.

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