HYDERABAD: Over the last 10 days, thousands of people were left scampering for shade, seeking air-conditioners, consuming cold drinks and trying to find just about anything to keep them cool as the Telugu states—Andhra Pradesh and Telangana—witnessed its hottest summer in over a decade.
Temperatures in both the states reached unimaginable levels to an extent that weathermen themselves were surprised at the unexpected rise in temperatures. Heat waves were predicted, red alerts were issued, dos and don’ts were circulated and yet lives were lost—too many of them. At the time of writing, the heat waves have killed a staggering 1,930 people from both the states. While an incomprehensible 1,490 lives were lost in Andhra Pradesh, 440 people were killed in the neighbouring state.
Maximum temperatures kept rising to a dangerously high level and at one stage officials of the Hyderabad
Meteorological Centre (HMC) predicted that the record for the hottest day in Hyderabad (since 1861) would be broken. The highest ever temperature in Telangana was recorded as 48.6°C at Bhadrachalam in 1973, while the highest temperature in Hyderabad was recorded at 45.5°C on June 2, 1966.
HMC Director-in-charge Y K Reddy had predicted that these records would be broken and that the state would witness its hottest ever period in history. While that did not happen, districts like Nizamabad, Khammam, Nalgonda and Ramagundam in Telangana breached 47°C, as severe heat wave conditions unrelentlessly prevailed in the state.
In Andhra Pradesh, the situation was just as bad, if not worse as several districts like Prakasam, Masulipatnam and Nandigama breached 48°C.
Even as the death toll kept rising at a disturbing rate in both states, their state governments were guilty of adopting a reactive, rather than a proactive approach. Officials from the disaster management departments were too busy counting the number of bodies, rather than formulating plans to prevent further deaths from taking place. Government officials remained utterly clueless about handling the situation. When asked about their action plan to prevent deaths from taking place, special commissioner for disaster management in Andhra Pradesh, Tulasi Rani, said, “At the moment, we are too busy counting the number of people who have died. I can only speak to you when we have confirmed the figure.”
This was not an isolated incident as officials continued to behave in a callous manner, and showed complete lack of preparation and tactical nous to deal with the situation. “We can do nothing but pray to God,” helplessly remarked J C Sharma, director of disaster management, government of Andhra Pradesh, after the toll crossed 1,000 in the state. “In a day or two, the rains will be here and this will all be over. We are just waiting for that now,” he added, a clear indication of the government’s nonplussed attitude.
Prakasam district in south coastal Andhra Pradesh was the worst affected with 321 deaths, followed by Guntur (223) and Visakhapatnam (180). Majority of the people who were killed were daily-wage labourers, homeless and senior citizens. Surprisingly, instead of making sure the toll doesn’t increase, government officials resorted to a disgusting ‘blame the victim’ approach. “Preventive steps must be taken by the concerned persons only. Unfortunately, because of their own problems, a lot of people work in extreme temperatures. Any government-related works during heat waves can be rescheduled and medical assistance must be provided. But other than that, the people themselves have to take precautions,” Sharma stated at a time when the highest-ever number of heat-related deaths took place in Andhra Pradesh.
Meanwhile in Telangana, 440 people were killed in the heat wave, a number drastically lesser than Andhra Pradesh. Government officials rather tried to take credit for their swiftness in handling the emergency situation and blamed the Andhra government. “We were alerted on May 1 itself that there is a possibility of a heat wave, following which we conducted several relief measures and awareness campaigns. Because of this, we were able to keep the toll to such a low figure. In my opinion, government officials in Andhra Pradesh had not done any of this,” remarked an official from the Telangana disaster management department.
Despite death count rising with each passing day, especially in Nizamabad, Warangal and Khammam districts, Telangana government officials insist that they had done everything they could to curb the situation. “We informed the collectors at the beginning of May, and gave them instructions and compiled a list of dos and don’ts. We advised everybody to refrain from venturing outside between 11 am to 3 pm. We used every tool at our disposal to create awareness. Ultimately, it is up to the people to follow our advice,” said B R Meena, principal secretary, revenue department, government of Telangana.
As we look at the mass destruction of human life that the heat waves have left in its wake, one wonders not about the number of lives that were lost, but the number of lives that could have been saved.