The cost of forgetting Ballia

In the day or so before June 1, 14 people died in Bihar of heat stroke. Ten of these people were election personnel deployed to oversee voting and associated activities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and of them, five died in Bhojpur alone. On Friday, at least 17 people in Uttar Pradesh, 14 in Bihar, and four in Jharkhand had died of heat-related morbidity. And of the 17 in Uttar Pradesh, 13 deaths were reported from Mirzapur alone. This is a toll rendered all the more terrible by two other issues.

First, after the first phase of the polls, the Election Commission of India (ECI) recorded lower voter turnout than expected (from previous Lok Sabha polls) and blamed the heat. Srinivasan Ramani, my colleague at The Hindu, subsequently found “little correlation” between the maximum temperature recorded and turnouts in various constituencies, and in fact an anti-correlation in some places. By this time the ECI had said it would institute a raft of measures to incentivise voters to turn up. These were certainly welcome irrespective of there being a relationship between turnout and heat. However, did it put in place similar ‘special’ measures for electoral officials?

On March 16, the ECI forwarded an advisory that included guidelines by the National Disaster Management Authority to manage heat to the chief electoral officers of all states and Union territories. These guidelines had the following recommendations, among others: “avoid going out in the sun, especially between 12.00 noon and 3.00 pm”; “wear lightweight, light-coloured, loose, and porous cotton clothes. Use protective goggles, umbrella/hat, shoes or chappals while going out in sun”; and “avoid strenuous activities when Balliathe outside temperature is high”.

A question automatically arises: if poll officers are expected to avoid such activities, the polling process should have been set up such that those incidents requiring such activities wouldn’t arise in the first place. So were they? Because it’s just poka-yoke: if the process itself didn’t change, expecting poll officers to “avoid going out in the sun … between 12 pm and 3 pm” would have been almost laughable.

The second issue is worse. Heat wave deaths in India are often the product of little to no advance planning, even if the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecast excessive heat on certain dates. But to make matters worse, there was a deadly heat wave last year in the same region where many of these deaths have been reported now.

Recall that in the first half of June 2023, more than 30 people died of heat-related illnesses in Ballia village in Uttar Pradesh. After the chief medical superintendent of the local district hospital told mediapersons the people had indeed died of excessive heat, the state health department — led by deputy chief minister Brajesh Pathak — transferred him away, and his successors later denied heat had had anything to do with the deaths.

So even if the IMD hadn’t predicted a heat wave in this region for around May 30-31, the local and national governments and the ECI should have made preparations for heat exposure leading at least to morbidity. Did they? To the extent that people wouldn’t have had to be hospitalised or have died if they’d made effective preparations, they didn’t. Actively papering over the effects of extreme weather (and of adverse exposure) has to be the most self-destructive thing we’re capable of in the climate change era.

Featured image: Representative image of a tree whose leaves appear to have wilted in the heat. Credit: Zoltan Tasi/Unsplash.