Tragic unpreparedness: on the Maharashtra heatwave incident  

Governments must prepare people to deal with extreme weather events 

Updated - April 19, 2023 11:46 am IST

Published - April 19, 2023 12:10 am IST

The state of the ongoing global climate crisis is such that India is going to have hotter hot days and more of them every year. While some of the blame for the effects — heat-related morbidity and mortality — may lie at the feet of meteorological caprice, the bulk of it will lie at the door of the government, whose responsibility it is to deal with and manage foreseeable inevitabilities. On April 16, nearly a million people gathered on an uncovered ground in Navi Mumbai for an event in which social activist Dattatreya Narayan received a State award, with Union Ministers Amit Shah and Kapil Patil, Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis joining him on a covered podium. More than 120 people suffered considerable heat stress; 13 died and 18 others were hospitalised. Mr. Shinde called the deaths “very unfortunate”, but fortune had nothing to do with it. News reports said that individuals, especially police personnel, were scrambling to bring drinking water to those in distress (because water at the site had become too hot to drink), and to carry them on motorcycles to avail medical assistance. This speaks less to their resourcefulness and more to the absence of a systematic plan for the event that accounted for predictable second-order problems.

After the event, experts also said that the area lacked a local India Meteorological Department station to issue heat alerts. This misses the point. Many places in India are likely to have a large political event before an official weather station. This, together with the rapid onset of India’s heat crisis, puts the spotlight on the fundamental yet elusive cause of climate-related injustice: the persistence of conditions in which some people are at the mercy of their employers or their leaders, in order to survive a hot day, or, as at the April 16 event, even a few hot hours. As long as this imbalance in relationship is allowed to exist, heat action plans and heat alerts can only be of limited benefit. Instead, India must work towards becoming a country in which every individual is equipped with climate-literacy sufficient to know why higher temperature plus higher relative humidity and/or dehydration equals high risk of injury and death, and the ability to access cool and clean drinking water, ventilated shelter and lodging, and affordable emergency medical care wherever, whenever. Notice how these requirements are similar to those required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in fact most national crises. This is not a coincidence. Governments must destroy conditions in which people are denied the means to prepare themselves for a crisis. But on April 16, a government created them.

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