Poorly-built shelters, the lack of proper blankets and sanitation facilities are something we hear about every year come the intense cold. And this is in Delhi which is comparatively better off than many other towns and cities. According to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), more than 1,600 people died due to extreme weather conditions across India last year, with the severe heat wave claiming 40% of the total deaths. The IMD said 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, globally as well as in India. Phalodi in Rajasthan recorded 51 degrees Celsius, the highest ever in India. Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra registered the highest number or fatalities, 35% of the total.
All these deaths were avoidable. The various ministries concerned have not even seen it fit to declare a heat wave as a national calamity though a cold snap is. If a national calamity is declared, a lot of measures kick in, which could help people withstand the weather conditions. Many of those who die due to extreme weather are construction workers, migrants and the homeless. Most cities or for that matter employers make little or no provision for them. The solutions are simple — availability of safe and well equipped shelters, drinking water and medical attention. Women tend to avoid city shelters for fear of their safety and lack of sanitation facilities. None of these are cripplingly expensive. It is simply that these people have fallen through the policy cracks. We have a national disaster management policy in place to deal with other extreme weather phenomenon like floods. But every time we seem to be caught on the wrong foot. The heartening thing as we saw in the Chennai floods is the large-heartedness of citizens in lending a helping hand. The flooding, it has now been proved, is a result in part of rampant construction on river banks with no thought of the consequences. In the case of heat waves, a cost effective method is to provide people with oral rehydration kits. But most of all, people should have some sort of shelter.
Both extremes of cold and heat affect productivity and it is in the enlightened self-interest of both employers and the state to enforce more mitigating measures. It is only now that a few shelters in Delhi have got hot running water. We have a lot to learn from the West on the subject of shelters and soup kitchens that can ease the hardship of so many people who are left to the mercy of the elements and who contribute to the economy in different ways.