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Unseen And Uncounted: The True Cost Of Heatwaves In India

As the nation faces unprecedented heat, families accuse authorities of downplaying the deadly toll to avoid compensation payouts

SURESH K PANDEY
A Man Drinking water in Summer Photo: SURESH K PANDEY
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Mahtab Alam had just become free after performing the last rites of his father when he received my call. He said, “I had just cremated my Abbu (father). Please give me an hour time.”

It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon of June 11. “Ten days ago, my father had caught loo. That day the temperature at Sherghati was 47 degrees. He expressed his uneasiness after coming back from the market. He had trouble breathing. We took him to the doctor. Doctor asked us to take him to Gaya. He was admitted to ICU at Gaya. He had recovered after four days. However, the doctor had informed that there was a lot of problem in his kidney and liver due to heat stroke. My father was under routine check up. In the meantime, he lost his life.”

The family of 65-year-old Munnawar Hussain is of the view that heatwave had taken his life as he did not suffer from any medical problem. Sherghati, situated at GT Road, is a locality that is equidistant from Gaya and Aurangabad districts of Bihar. Sherghati comes under Gaya district of Bihar. People here inform that this place has never experienced this kind of heat wave in decades.

One can only imagine the situation at Aurangabad where the soaring temperature is creating havoc. Aurangabad had broken its previous years’ record. According to the news of May 30, the number of deaths here was far more than all the districts of Bihar. One such newspaper headline on this day was: “People kept coming to the hospital, only to lose their lives.”

The temperature on May 30 was 48.2 degree and 47.4 degree at Aurangabad and Gaya respectively. These had broken the 54-year-old record of Bihar. That day there were 22 deaths at Aurangabad and seven in Gaya. Media had given coverage to 75 deaths that took place in Bihar. Due to scorching heat and loo, the number of deaths kept on increasing the next day too. On May 31, a maximum of 17 deaths took place in Aurangabad and 10 in Gaya. That day a total of 64 deaths were registered in Bihar.

Within 48 hours, the heatwave killed 138 people in Bihar, but the disaster management department kept confirming the death of only 19 people, mostly polling personnel. Obviously, when the remaining deaths, including that of Mannawar Hussain, are not considered deaths due to heatstroke, the government and its system will further count those as anonymous deaths.

The correct death toll figure from heatwave gets lost in government medical procedures, and in such cases, one department of the government starts questioning the figures of another. According to a report released by India's National Disaster Management Authority in 2021, only four people died due to heatwave in 2020. However, in the same year, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data showed 530 deaths due to extreme heatwave.

Within a span of two days, 39 people lost their lives in Aurangabad, however, Dr. R.P. Srivastava, civil surgeon, confirms only five deaths. According to media reports, more than three dozen deaths took place within a span of only two days. Srivastava tells Outlook that he can only quote the official figure received in this regard. According to Srivastava, the process of government compensation given to these five by the district administration is going on.

The district administration of Gaya does not consider these deaths as heat wave deaths. A doctor at Sadar Hospital, on the condition of anonymity, says, “Apart from the 17 deaths on May 30 and 31, there are around 50 deaths in Gaya till date. However, not even a single death has been considered to be death due to heat wave." He continues, “Gaya Medical College had earlier confirmed the death of 8 people on account of heat wave. However, later the district administration refused to accept the same as heat wave death. Now, only the figures of the people being admitted to the hospital due to heat wave are being disclosed; not figures of deaths. The problem is that the government is not ready to accept that these deaths are on account of heat wave. I feel that they are purposely doing it to avoid paying the compensation amount.”

He is of the view that there will be more deaths due to heat wave and that the present year has been the hottest after 2019.

In the neighbouring state of Bihar, Palamu happens to be the hottest district. Between May 30 and 31, the temperature of Palamu reached 47-48 degrees. According to the media reports, there have been several deaths due to heat wave. A local journalist, Neeraj, says that due to heat wave, within a span of 48 hours, more than 20 people have died. People who died mostly belonged to Hussainabad and Modinagar.

Mahesh Ram (55) of Signa village was one such person who breathed his last on May 31. His son, Dilip Kumar, who is 20 years of age, tells Outlook, “On May 31, he had come back in the morning itself with the goats and other animals. His entire body was heated. His face had become red. After his condition deteriorated further, we took him to Garhwa hospital in the car. However, doctor informed us that he had already died on his way.”

Village Chief of Signa, Nazma Khatanu, informs that three people had lost their lives due to loo on May 31. She says, “Our village is surrounded by hills on all the sides that cause heat. However, I have never felt this kind of heat in my entire 50 years of life.”

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However, the question remains as to whether these deaths are considered to be deaths on account of heat wave or not? Civil surgeon of Palamu district, Dr Anil Kumar, tells Outlook, “The official figure of deaths due to heat wave remains only 4. We cannot consider death due to heat stroke without examining the dead bodies (that were brought). There can be many reasons for these deaths. Yes, a lot of patients came with heatwave-related health issues, who got treated and recovered."

Nazma says that she is trying that at least the family gets some compensation, and she has sent all the papers to the concerned department.

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Alabdar Khan, activist, working in the health sector, says that this is the situation of all the state governments. Governments trap people in different terminologies and refuse to accept these as deaths due to heat wave. He says, “They neither want to provide compensation nor want to take any responsibility. For example, if someone dies of heat stroke due to blood pressure or sugar, which is common nowadays, then they will say that he/she had died due to sugar or blood pressure."

Alabdar says in order to prove that such deaths were due to heatwave, families of the deceased will have to fight a long battle with the government. They are not financially capable, because these people mostly belong to the working class.

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However, the relatives of the deceased who died due to heat are adequately compensated by the district administration. But this compensation amount is not a special amount received under the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of India. In 2015, when heat wave was at its worst, NDMA first prepared a new heatwave action plan, but unfortunately, heatwave has not yet been included in the 12 NDMA disasters.

In 2023, the maximum temperature touched 46 degrees in Jharkhand. Ranchi Meteorological Center scientist, Abhishek Anand told Outlook, "Last time, the maximum temperature in the state went up to 46 degrees in Godda. This time, the temperature increased to 47-48 degrees in Palamu, Garhwa and Bahargoda. Palamu region will have scorching heat for a few more days. For this reason, red alert has been declared.”

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On heat wave deaths, Abhishek Anand says that one should not step out of home unless it is compulsory. One should carry umbrella, towel and have liquid diet before stepping out of the house. Especially workers should be exempted, and their working timings should be changed.

Last year too, there were many deaths in Jharkhand due to heat wave. Media reports say that the number of deaths have increased. As per one report, there were 60 deaths between May 28 and June 2.

Banna Gupta, minister in the Jharkhand government, holds both the health and disaster management portfolios. When Outlook enquired about the deaths, he asked to call after two hours. However, even after repeated calls, he did not answer.

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Many states in the country suffered from extreme heat between May 30 and 31. Delhi recorded 52.3 degree temperature which was the highest in 110 years.

A media report says that there were 320 deaths in seven states within four days due to heatstroke. Apart from Bihar, Jharkhand, UP, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan are included in this.

Till June 2, 200 people lost their lives in Uttar Pradesh and 141 in Odisha on account of heat stroke. According to data shared by the Union Health Ministry of the Government of India, 24,849 people were affected by severe heat between March and May, of which 56 have died. At the same time, according to the data shared by the government in response to a question asked in the Lok Sabha on 21 July 2023, 4057 people died.

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These figures are contradictory

Climate change and rising temperature are taking a macabre form. According to a new research report by Monash University, which while revealing the deadly heat waves, mentions that heat waves are responsible for 1,53,078 deaths every year worldwide. Among these deaths, it is worth noting that every fifth death is occurring in India i.e. 31,748 deaths every year.

Scorching heat and deaths due to heat waves are still on the rise. These are those deaths that the newspaper will count but they will become anonymous in government figures.

(Translated by Kaveri Mishra)

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