The big freeze

Published : Feb 14, 2003 00:00 IST

A cold wave takes a heavy toll of the poor in northern and central India, chiefly among those sections of the population already left vulnerable by economic inequities.

in New Delhi

THE death of nearly 800 people across the northern and central regions of the country caught in cold wave conditions in recent weeks has, more than anything else, exposed the indifference of the state machinery towards the victims, mostly poor and destitute people. These deaths occurred within a span of a month. They brought to the fore the deep inequities in the nation's social fabric. Even as the sale of heaters and convectors went up, and discomfort grew over fog delaying air and rail transport, at one end of the social spectrum, the deaths continued - at another level.

For the first time in 40 years, temperatures plunged to zero and sub-zero levels in areas which have not had a record of such cold conditions. According to the India Meteorological Department, which has been monitoring atmospheric conditions in northern and northwestern India, the day and night temperatures had plunged 4-5Celsius below normal, resulting in a cold wave. In the plains of north India, the "cold day" temperatures, that is the maximum temperatures during the day during winter, normally ranged around 20C.

Between January 2 and 20, the maximum temperature during the day was found to range between 12C and 17C, which was four to nine degrees below normal. This had an impact on night temperatures as well. Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Chandigarh, and the plains of Jammu and Kashmir experienced a fairly long spell of "cold day" as well as foggy conditions.

Some respite came after January 20, though deaths due to exposure to the cold continued to be reported.

R.D. Singh, Director, Meteorological Office, Safdarjung Airport, Delhi, said that western weather disturbances, particularly El Nino, coupled with a low-level anti-cyclonic atmospheric condition, have been responsible for such drastic variations in temperature. In such a situation moisture and fog persist, making solar penetration or insulation impossible. Though February is also a winter month, the Director does not expect it to experience as bad a spell as in January.

SURPRISINGLY, the State governments concerned have hardly reacted substantively to the deaths. Even more surprising has been the silence of the Central government. The majority of the casualties - more than 500 - have occurred in Uttar Pradesh. The worst affected are the rural areas. But the Bahujan Samaj Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government in the State showed hardly any concern even as the toll went up by the day. Insufficient attention is paid to the abysmal state of housing facilities for the homeless and other poor people. Districts such as Bareilly, Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad and Lucknow faced near-freezing temperatures.

After U.P., Bihar reported high casualty levels - around a hundred. The cold weather claimed a further 57 lives in Punjab, Chandigarh, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

The Gangetic plain, especially in eastern India, which has not ever recorded temperatures as low as zero degree Celsius, was affected. Sub-zero temperatures prevailed also in Rajasthan, especially in Churu, Sikar, Pilani, Bikaner and Ganganagar. In Churu, where the mercury plunged to -1C in the second week of January, pipelines burst when water froze.

The other badly affected States were Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, the Union Territory of Chandigarh, and Jammu and Kashmir. Ambala, Sirsa and Hisar in Haryana experienced new lows, while in Punjab, the cities of Ludhiana, Patiala and Amritsar experienced very chilly conditions. In Srinagar, temperatures were as low as -6.4C in mid-January. Even West Bengal felt the wave: Kolkata experienced its coldest day in 14 years on January 22 when the mercury marked 9.3C.

Several States closed down schools and colleges for a week. In Bihar and U.P., where there was no let-up, schools were closed for a second time in January. In Delhi and Haryana, schools remained closed for a week. In Bihar, panic struck in some blocks in Patna when snakes emerged from their pits and promptly perished in the cold.

Of course, the deaths did not occur in a vacuum. The last one and a half decades have seen drastic cutbacks in public expenditure on social development and one of its manifestations has been a lack of food and nutrition security for the poor. Adding to this crisis is the absence of a strong state-supported institution for food security. The 1997 report of the Independent Commission on Health in India observed that no Central government in the country, has viewed the Public Distribution System as an instrument to serve the food security needs of the poor.

In terms of food consumption, the rural-urban divide has become worse. The paradox is that the prescriptions to alleviate poverty emanate from none other than those who make it difficult for developing countries to increase levels of public expenditure. A recent World Bank report, "Poverty in India: Challenge of Uttar Pradesh", claims that the situation in U.P. is a global challenge, since about 8 per cent of the world's poor live in the State. The World Bank has asked the U.P. government to accelerate efforts at reducing poverty, as 60 million poor people in the State are at risk of becoming poorer. But in the report a senior World Bank economist makes the observation that the loss of economic momentum in U.P. is the loss of effectiveness of the public sector. This has led to an investment climate not supportive of private investment and growth, and to poor performance in the delivery of social and infrastructure services, essential for poverty reduction, he says. Even if it is accepted that the public sector has not delivered the goods, it is difficult to believe that the private sector, driven by profit, would ameliorate poverty and invest in social development.

The immediate cause of the deaths is hypothermia, which results from an abnormally low body temperature, and slows down the circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems. Severe hypothermia can lead to irregular heartbeat, and later to heart failure and possibly death.

The Indian Council for Agricultural Research has warned that the cold wave is likely to take a toll on the rabi crop. Dense fog, poor sunshine and high humidity provided ideal conditions for pests to attack the sugarcane, mustard and potato crops. Pestilence has affected the pulse crops already. The lack of sunlight could affect the wheat already sown, leading to a stunted crop. Crops such as tomato, brinjal and chillies were affected by the frost.

Large parts of South Asia have been affected by the weather disturbance, though to varying degrees. Several deaths have been reported from Bangladesh and Nepal. In India, it is the rural poor who have suffered the most. Many rural migrants to the cities have no homes, and spend the night on pavements and on road medians. There is no state machinery or infrastructure in place to take stock of the human toll or at least prevent its escalation. In a country where almost half the population is below the poverty line, the casualties from exposure to extreme temperatures are the poor and the homeless. A senior official in the Meteorological Department correctly summed up the situation: The killer is poverty, not the cold.

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