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Home > News > Specials

The Rediff Special/George Iype

June 05, 2003

Every summer much of India is engulfed in a blistering heat wave that causes people to suffer from sunstroke, vomit blood, and even collapse dead. Add to that the untold damage to crops, shortage of water, and unending power cuts.

This year, however, summer temperatures have bordered on the extreme. Thousands of people, especially children, have been admitted in hospitals with high fever, thanks to the sweltering heat.

In Hyderabad, the capital city of India's worst-affected state Andhra Pradesh, an accident victim who lay unconscious on the streets for 30 minutes was hospitalised with severe burns caused by the scorching tarmac.

The heat wave has claimed more than 1,200 lives in Andhra Pradesh alone over the last three weeks. Orissa, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Delhi are also badly affected.

No national-level ministry or agency monitors these deaths, so there are no figures to confirm how many Indians have died of the heat. But reports collated from across the country say more than 1,600 people died in May alone. The figures are going up every day, especially in Andhra Pradesh, where heat waves are an annual phenomenon.

"Our state has become an inferno," said a senior official at state Relief Commissioner D C Rosaiah's office in Hyderabad. "People are dying everywhere. Rivers, lakes and wells have all dried up. Everyone now just prays for the rains."

The official said their studies had revealed that the reasons for the heat wave include declining water levels in the lakes and rivers in the state and depleting forests.

For some years now, dry winds blowing across the Thar Desert in northwestern India have led to abnormally hot summers in states like Andhra Pradesh on the East Coast. The escalation in the heat wave in Andhra Pradesh can be easily seen in the following figures: in 1996, some 1,300 people died because of the heat. Last year, some 1,030 people died of the same cause in just one week in May. Every year, the heat has been killing an increasing number of people. The toll is between 1,000 and 1,500 every year in Andhra Pradesh alone.

Rosaiah, who is spearheading the relief operations, said temperatures during the long summer generally soar to as much as 50°C in some of the worst affected parts of the state. But officials and meteorologists say this year's blazing heat wave is unusual. The reason, they say, is the absence of a north-south trough in May, which generally negates the effects of the hot winds from the Thar Desert.

Even as officials and weathermen struggle to manage and interpret the heat wave that has made life unbearable, some experts say it could be part of the El Nino phenomenon.

El Nino refers to a chain of events that begins in the Pacific Ocean and ends up affecting the entire world.

A huge pool of warm ocean water, heated by the tropical sun, lies in an area of the Pacific Ocean near the Galapagos Islands.

Most years, strong trade winds blowing over the Pacific push this warm water westward toward Australia and Indonesia. At irregular intervals, however, the trade winds weaken and the warm water sloshes back towards South America and accumulates along the Peruvian coast. The water heats the air above it, spawning massive thunderstorms. Those storms pump huge amounts of moisture and humidity high into the atmosphere, interfering with and redirecting the flow of jet stream winds. These changes can cause unexpected weather patterns around the world.

For example, it leads to flooding in Peru and California, among other places. Meanwhile, areas far to the west of the phenomenon, such as Indonesia and Australia, suffer from severe droughts.

The El Nino phenomenon can also lead to global warming.

According to meteorologist Professor Pratap Chandran, the shrinking of the Himalayan glaciers is another reason why India is battling natural disasters like heat waves, floods and droughts.

"It has been proven scientifically that the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking. Within the next 50 years, they will not generate the water levels we are getting now," he warned.

But the rising toll from the mounting heat wave is yet to get a 'notification' from the Centre. Which means heat waves are not recognised by the government as a natural disaster.

The National Disaster Management Cell in Delhi is expected to swing into action when natural calamites strike. But the cell does not even have official data about how many people have died in the heat wave this year, or in the past few years.

"Heat and cold waves are not included in the list of natural disasters," said joint secretary R K Singh, who heads the cell in Delhi. "Hence, there is no monitoring of these calamities at the national level in India."

The cell, he explained, assists the states in meeting problems caused by natural disasters like cyclones, earthquakes, floods and droughts only. "It is for the various state governments to respond to the needs of their citizens in the event of cold and heat waves affecting normal life."

The model for the cell has been borrowed from the United States disaster management division, which handles as many as 24 functions related to various calamities.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu has been requesting the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to include heat wave deaths in the list of 'natural calamities'. But there has been no response from the central government.

Officials at the cell, which was created after the massive earthquake in Gujarat in January 2000, did, however, say they were trying to create a record of the heat wave deaths in the country. "We want to study the seriousness of the situation annually before declaring it a natural calamity," said one official.

Till then, no relief will trickle down to those who face the consequences of the increasingly hot Indian summers.

Image: Uttam Ghosh


The Rediff Specials

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Number of User Comments: 10

Sub: regading scorching heat

unless and untill the politicians are forebidden to travel in cars fitted with airconditioners and live in airconditioned rooms at the cost of common massses, ...

Posted by viswam kumar

Sub: Heat

The cause for all these effects and disasters are the illiterate politicians who mess with everything including environment and health without realising the fact they ...

Posted by M.S.Krishna Murthy

Sub: Calamity

The article just shows that our Govt is least bothered to see that it is finally our country ppl who are dying whether it be ...

Posted by Smitha

Sub: Deadly Summer

It's time for not only the government but also the people to realise the importance of forest and rain water. Everyone should do everything possible ...

Posted by Mani

Sub: Grow Trees,Trees,& Trees

Dear Sir, Growing plants like anything everywhere is the only solution to reduce heat wave effect. Atleast now all the states has to take necessary ...

Posted by senthil



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