AA Edit | As heat rises across India, let's find new ways to cope

With temperatures soaring, calls grow for measures to combat rising heat-related deaths

“The times, they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan. In the modern age, “the climate, it is a-changin’”, might be more appropriate for what is currently happening to the planet. And tropical India, with Kanyakumari just eight degrees above the equator to Ladakh that lies on the 34th latitude, suffers seasonal extremes of climate from torrential rain to blistering heat and, in parts, severe cold, too.

The juxtaposition of heat and rain as the southwest monsoon broke over Kerala and the northeast Thursday, makes for a peculiar phenomenon, with the capital New Delhi seeing the temperature gauge bursting through the glass to 52.9 degrees Celsius, the hottest ever recorded in India, that is if the Met department does not pin the blame on faulty measuring equipment at Mungeshpur near New Delhi that recorded 52.3°C (126 degrees Fahrenheit).

As it is a third consecutive year of severe heat waves in the country, there is no ducking the extreme temperature as a freak occurrence even if the maximum stays within the 50°C mark. While we have been mourning the scores of victims of storm-related events in the last few days, several deaths due to extreme heat have also occurred, virtually unsung as their numbers are difficult to estimate.

The heat takes its insidious toll even on the normally healthy as there is always the likelihood of developing heat illness and heatstroke in all ages, as the IMD puts it. Heatwaves were always prevalent in India between March and June, only their recurrence over days in a month has doubled or tripled recently. And it is not only the heat in the capital that should be causing concern as 50°C is common these days in places like Churu and Sirsa in the northwest.

What we have not been adept at is to adapt to the extreme heat conditions by changing the working hours, or even stopping all outdoor work for four hours as they do in the Gulf region when the temperature touches 50°C. The Rajasthan high court had much to say on how heat action plans are drawn up but are never followed even as it made a clarion call for the government to compensate kin for lives lost due to extreme weather events.

“Take necessary precautions against the heat” is easier said than done as the country is headed to a point when heatwaves could “cross the survivability limit for a healthy human resting in the shade by 2050”, according to a Cambridge University study. The study also pointed out that more than 24,000 have died in the last 30 years, including 2,000 in the year 2015 alone from a severe heatwave.

Silent killers the heatwaves may be, but it is the duty of governments to at least lay down guidelines regarding outdoor work in hazardous heat and cold conditions so that workers get paid if work must stop in the most challenging hours. The climate crisis of the day is such that millions of people become vulnerable in summer and society must spare a thought towards bettering the chances for all to survive extreme conditions and be prepared to pay a small price to protect the susceptible.

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