By Karthik Shankar:
It doesn’t seem like it but there’s a natural disaster taking place in the country this week. More than 1100 people have died in the heat wave across the country, almost all of them from just two states – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. This is not a prophetic warning about how global warming is out to corner us (although that is true). This is about the fact that our government has completely failed its welfare duty to its citizens.
It’s understandable that a heat wave doesn’t evoke such strong sentiments as an earthquake or a flood. Those disasters are equal opportunity, viciously targeting the rich or poor. Heat waves are very much an insular calamity, in that their targets are the vulnerable, destitute and infirm. And who cares about the poor? Certainly not our local and Central governments, judging by their response.
Authorities have doled out ‘sage’ advice about staying indoors and drinking plenty of fluids. That is meant for people who are already basking in the cool comfort of their air-conditioned rooms. What happens to those who don’t have a shelter over their head or have to continue working outdoors to put food on their table?
The lack of adequate response has made this a man made disaster. It’s about the homeless who are forced to sleep on scorching pavements. The property developers who flout all international labour standards and make their bonded workers endanger themselves and others while working on the latest swanky high-rise buildings. With unregulated working hours, the irony is that these same labourers who are responsible for all the attributes of modern metropolitan cities, usually have no place of their own. They sleep in the open near these unfinished structures and don’t even have access to toilets. These images resemble gulags rather than 21st century progress. Field work for a research project I’d been part of in Hyderabad showed that the local government had severely mismanaged funds allocated for worker welfare. Will these deaths finally rouse the lethargic bureaucrats?
It’s ludicrous that we can channel thousands of crores into dying businesses but become thrifty when it comes to the meagre funds required to put a roof over the head of our homeless. 8% of India’s homeless belong to Andhra Pradesh. Despite this, the government has failed in ensuring sufficient housing for the poor. As per a 2012 national report on homelessness, there is not a single 24 hour shelter in Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, even the few available night shelters are run by local NGOs. If the government is leaving the difficult job of providing accommodation to NGOs and community philanthropes, it’s basically sending a clear message that the homeless have to fend for themselves.
Finally, the staggering number of deaths also reveals that being surrounded by attributes of urbanity doesn’t mean access to those amenities. The only people buying bottled water are the ones who have no shortage of it at home. The very same people are the ones visiting hospitals after signs of dehydration or nausea. Drought or primitive healthcare are not concepts that are native to rural India. Deprivation is something that takes place on a daily basis in our bustling metropolitans. The heat wave only exacerbates the magnitude of this economic divide.
What is shocking is that in the National Disaster Management Authority’s statistics, heat waves are not included among the woefully incomplete database of natural disasters that had high death tolls. This is not the first time this has happened in Andhra Pradesh. In 2002, over a thousand people died in a single week due to stifling heat. The NDMA’s only response seems to be a quaint list of dos and don’ts that includes gems like checking in on neighbours to ensure they are keeping cool and not leaving pets in closed cars.
How is it that the world’s eighth largest economy can’t even spend a fraction from its coffers to protect its people from the heat?