It’s summer season again and temperatures are soaring across the subcontinent. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has issued heatwave alerts for a record six states in northern India. Rajasthan, in particular, has borne the brunt with the IMD declaring heatwave conditions in 75% of the geographical area of the state. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), 2015 saw 2,422 heat-related mortality cases—a nearly four-fold jump since 2008. The new weather variability normal we are witnessing, be it the freak dust storms that claimed more than 100 lives in Uttar Pradesh in May or the longer summers, is beginning to show chinks in the armour of the state apparatus.

The health implications of increasing heat stress have a significant impact on both individuals as well as the economy as a whole. Short-term impacts such as headache and fatigue, as well as long-term exposure causing cardiovascular diseases, kidney failure and respiratory distress , have been commonly recorded. New research on the impact of heatwaves on the economy as a whole, too, is throwing up rather alarming statistics for India. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) records in its 5th Assessment Report that the work output of the global economy would fall by as much as 20% by the end of the century in the event of a 4 degrees Celsius warming of the planet, with the most damaging impact being felt in the tropics, especially South Asia.

Recognizing the adverse health impact and potential decline in economic productivity, several states such as Gujarat, Odisha and Telangana have formulated action plans to address the adaptation to heatwaves. In response to the extreme heatwave event of 2010, the city of Ahmedabad was the first in Asia to develop a Heat Action Plan which laid the foundation for similar initiatives in other cities. Currently in its sixth iteration, it pioneered the use of data-based randomized cluster sample surveys to assess household vulnerability to heat stress, resulting in agency-specific, location-specific sets of recommendations.

Another central feature of the plan was the focus on capacity building of healthcare professionals through workshops such as those organized by Understanding Climate and Health Associations in India (UCHAI). The state of Odisha incorporates all climate change risks, including heatwaves, in its comprehensive State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) document. Other institutional design features, such as the State Emergency Operation Centre (SEOC), set up under the Office of the Special Relief Commissioner, have shown remarkable nimble-footedness in coordinating multiagency, intergovernmental responses to heatwave-related emergencies in the past three years.

While many city and state-led initiatives are now past the design stage, several key gaps are emerging as far as implementation of the heat action plans is concerned. One such is the consideration of “heat island effect"—where urban cores can have significantly higher temperatures compared to the surrounding area. Given the already constrained financial resources at the disposal of urban local bodies (ULBs), targeting interventions on the basis of heat stress, hot-spot identification can go a long way in optimizing health expenditure.

In the recent past, city planners in India have relied on the average “floor space index" (FSI), as an indicator of urban development. For instance, in the transit-oriented development policy of Delhi, announced by the Union ministry of urban development in 2015, the FSI limits were increased to 4.0 along Metro corridors. Proponents such as Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California argue for the benefits of this model compared to the unsustainable suburban sprawls of the US. The former causes lower carbon footprint and improves total factor productivity by virtue of reduced commuting distance and time. But in the Indian context, the concentration of high rise buildings with round-the-clock AC usage, poor thermal insulation and glazing leads to heat entrapment or the “canyon effect". This phenomenon, compounded with heatwaves, leads to acute heat stress conditions.

A recent study by Teri (The Energy and Resources Institute) tries to address this problem in the industrial city of Jharsuguda in Odisha. One of the features of this plan adopted by the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority is the bottom-up feedback- based “systems approach". It uses focused group discussions and community radio programmes, conducted at the municipality level, to communicate location-specific resource requirements to the district emergency operation centre and further to the SEOC.

With the NDMA carrying out a detailed review of the preparedness of 17 heatwave-prone states, the onus is upon the SDMAs to effectively implement their plans in accordance with the NDMA guidelines, customized to the circumstances of each state. In addition, formulating robust monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to track the progress of various initiatives right up to the district level will provide the much needed urgency in the government machinery. Given that the worst impacts of climate change are yet to be felt, the case for enhanced state capacity to minimize the cost of damage due to inevitable environmental and health externalities of the development agenda has never been stronger in India.

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