India is currently in the midst of a heatwave that has seen temperatures exceed 45°C in some parts of the country.
Officials have cited reports of 207 heat-related deaths across the country at the time of writing. This death toll includes 83 people in the eastern state of Bihar, although some estimates place the total much higher at 184. This suggests the total heatwave death toll may be higher than official reports. Most of the individuals who have died succumbed to heatstroke while working at construction sites or in fields.
Bihar has been grappling with a rapid and numerous influx of encephalitis cases recently — attributed in part to toxins within lychee fruits. The state has reported more than 100 child deaths associated with the issue, which has been exacerbated by the heatwave within the state.
Meteorologists have claimed temperatures are around 5°C hotter than the average expected for this time of year. The delayed onset of the monsoon season has added to the issue, resulting in not only high temperatures but extreme levels of drought. This is exacerbating water shortage crises in many parts of the country.
Daytime temperatures across much of the country have exceeded 40°C for the past month – a time period just short of the record 33 days experienced in 1988. Such temperatures make heatstroke a very real possibility, often occurring even during short exposures to such high temperatures — particularly in those in already vulnerable states such as the elderly or in children. Heatwaves have long been a deadly phenomenon in India, killing more than 22,000 people since 1992.
One group particularly prone to the condition — and forming a significant proportion of the casualties thus far — are manual labourers. For many belonging to this group an elongated period away from work to avoid the heatwave is simply not a possibility. A potential month of lost wages could mean starvation to many of these people. The result is many are taking to the fields and construction sites despite the potential for severe illness or even death.
Authorities in Bihar’s Gaya district have opted to impose curfew-like restrictions during the extreme heat of the day. The district magistrate also banned all construction work and outdoor activities between 11am and 4pm. Such measures may seem extreme, but in the face of an ever growing death toll, it is a logical option to limit the human health impact of the weather.
It has been advised that individuals should spend as little time as possible outside during the daytime heat. Hydration has also been underlined as important in staving off the potential effects of heatstroke, for which dehydration is a significant risk factor. It is hoped that the monsoon weather brings relief in the coming weeks to alleviate the droughts and heat faced across much of India – although with reports of below-average rainfall, respite for many Indians seems a long way off.