July 05, 2020
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Chilblains On The Soul

With no contingency plans and few resources, the northern belt reels under a cold wave. Hundreds of the abject poor succumb.

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Chilblains On The Soul
Chilblains On The Soul
In Delhi the skies may have opened up and the mercury may have risen. But for well over a fortnight the capital and the northern states of UP, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were gripped in a severe cold wave that caught authorities off-guard. No one was prepared for the extended chill, with the homeless taking the brunt of it. At the end of the fortnight, by one estimate well over a 1,000 people had died. And the worst is not quite over yet in Bihar and UP.

The two states were the worst affected. It is also here that the state failed to provide much needed relief. In Patna, outside CM Rabri Devi's bungalow on Anne Marg shivering villagers from Bahtiarpur wait imploringly for an audience. Abject poverty forced them to travel 45 km despite the bitter cold to assemble outside the CM's residence for free blankets—like beggars seeking alms. Says Kabootri: "We heard on the baja (radio) that blankets are being distributed here by the CM but so far we have got none and the securitymen have asked us to go away."

In Lucknow, Raju, a beggar in his 60s, has made a temple on the banks of river Gomti his permanent shelter. The largest Indian state and one of the most populous, UP does not even have sufficient night shelters to cater to its homeless population. In the state capital, Lucknow, there are just 50 night shelters for the homeless. "How will a few rain baseras (night shelters) cater to the thousands of homeless left to die on the streets due to cold?" asks Raju.

In fact, there is not even an attempt to fake readiness to deal with the crisis. S.K. Singh, Lucknow's additional district magistrate (revenue department), says the administration has distributed 1,487 blankets to the homeless—a paltry figure compared to the thousands living on the streets in Lucknow district. If this is not enough, the administration has also failed to control charcoal prices, up threefold in the last one month. Desperate people are even flocking to cremation grounds to keep themselves warm with the smouldering pyres.

"The state governments are simply unprepared. There is no plan in place to ensure that the poor and homeless do not die of cold," says Sanjay Gupta of Chetna, a Delhi-based NGO working for streetchildren. Gupta says even though the Delhi government acted somewhat responsibly, they still could provide shelter to only around five thousand people—a mere five per cent of the capital's homeless population. "NGOs and social groups can only assist. It is essentially the social responsibility of the state to ensure that its people don't die a miserable death like this," he adds.

How difficult it is to survive in such adverse conditions is revealed when one visits a shelter. Forty-five-year-old Babulal Jangid is one among a lakh of Delhi's homeless. A casual worker, he barely earns enough to feed his family back home in Sriganganagar, Rajasthan. During summers, he sleeps out on the pavements, but in winters he seeks refuge in a temporary night shelter opposite old Delhi railway station. A tarpaulin awning for roof, a rickety charpoy and a rancid quilt for cover comes at a huge premium of Rs 10 as the place is managed by local private operators. But Jangid has no other alternative. As he puts it, "This just about ensures that I do not die. I need to live to look after my family."

The media attention resulted in intervention from NGOs and the government in Delhi. But in neighbouring UP and Bihar, this is proving to be a killer winter. Out of the over 1,000 people killed, a majority belong to the two states. But the death toll which shocked even the international media is not even being acknowledged by the state governments.

In Bihar, unofficial estimates put the death toll at around 650 whereas the state government says not even ten people have died so far.Says Upendra Sharma, joint secretary (relief and rehabilitation): "Till now, only six people have died in the state due to the cold." Ask him about the arrangements made to tackle this crisis and pat comes the reply: "The government has distributed wood for bonfire, blankets and other material worth lakhs to the poor and homeless."

To be fair, the state government has sanctioned Rs 70 lakh. But social workers point out that the relief will reach the poor a little too late. "The finance department will take at least a month to process and release this money. By which time the cold would be over," says Bipin Kumar, chairman of Perfect Reformation Society, an NGO working with the poor and the homeless.

With the states not having any sort of permanent plan to deal with such eventualities, the need to study the cold wave phenomenon is also being widely discussed in scientific circles. Various theories have been propounded to explain the unusually long cold spell. But very few can explain the mercury dropping below zero in places like Kanpur and Allahabad and close to zero in many cities of northern India.

Officials at Mausam Bhavan assert that there is nothing unusual if one sees it in relation to the data of the past 100 years. However, there is no denying the fact that northern India faced the coldest winter in the last four decades. The fact that the cold wave was preceded by a prolonged summer and a failed monsoon has added weight to the theories of global warming.

Says Dr G.B. Pant, director of the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology: "There is one view that global warming has caused extreme weather conditions. This may not be completely off the track. But it lacks scientific evidence." He adds that climate is a huge phenomenon developing over thousands of years. Pant, instead, feels that a cloud of haze stretching across the entire northern region extending up to the east, mixed with pollutants worsened the cold wave. It prevented solar radiation from reaching the ground as a result of which the temperatures remained low for a long stretch.

However, now with the cold wave receding, the more important issue is the plight of the homeless in such calamitous conditions. The Delhi government says it will draw up a contingency plan for the future. Unless the other states initiate such moves, some of its citizens will be left out to die in the next winter chill too.

Davinder Kumar With Amarnath Tewary in Patna and Sutapa Mukherjee

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