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India acts on ‘heat action plans’ as temperature soars

Even for a nation that's accustomed to heat waves, near-record temperatures in India have made daily life miserable and worse: more that 1,400 people have died so far. It's been particularly tough for poorer regions of the country, where electrical fans and air conditioning are out of reach for some. William Brangham gets an update from TIME magazine’s Nikhil Kumar.

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    Temperatures in India soared to over 115 degrees today in some places, pushing the country's heat wave death toll above 1,400 people.

    NewsHour correspondent William Brangham has more.


    Even for a nation accustomed to heat waves, this one has been especially tough.

    For almost a week now, near record temperatures have made daily life miserable. Some roads in New Delhi literally melted in the sun. Two provinces in the southern part of the country have borne the brunt. There, hospitals were full of victims of the heat. Government officials have asked people not to venture outside if they can avoid it and to drink fluids constantly.

    It's been particularly hard in the poorer regions of the country, where spotty or nonexistent electricity puts even the idea of fans or air conditioning out of reach. It seems this white Bengal tiger at a New Delhi zoo was one of the few to find some relief.

    Earlier today, I talked to TIME magazine's Nikhil Kumar in New Delhi. I asked him about the rising death toll and who specifically was affected by the scorching temperatures.

    NIKHIL KUMAR, TIME magazine: The victims of the heat wave so far have been the elderly and people who are forced to go out and work in the heat. So, construction workers, other people who are on a daily wage, and homeless people, according to officials, they make up the bulk of those who died.


    I mean, India has heat waves almost every year. How does this one compare to what's happened in the past?


    So, this one is more severe than last year. The death toll in Andhra Pradesh, which is the state that is the worst affected, is somewhere around double so far.

    But there have been more severe heat waves in the past. The same state in 2003 saw about 3,000 people die because of a heat wave. That was around the same time as the heat wave that followed later that summer in Europe.

    So, you're quite right. Heat waves are a regular occurrence. The one thing that has happened is that, over the last few decades, according to climate experts, the frequency and the severity has increased.


    Here in the United States, when we have heat waves, the governments issue alerts, they open up these cooling centers where people can get some kind of a break from the heat.

    What has the Indian government been doing to try to alleviate the suffering?


    Well, the response has been very much sort of state by state.

    The — there are certain parts of the countries — for example, the city in the state of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, which was hit by a very severe heat wave in 2010. Following that heat wave, they put in place a heat action plan, as they call it, a framework for warning people about heat waves and for dealing with heat waves, so doing simple things like putting ice packs in ambulances and emergency rooms.

    That's not the case everywhere, though. That's more an exception than the rule. But the response is, it's very much — it depends where you are. It's not very well coordinated from the center. It's very much at the state level.


    How has the public responded to the government's actions?


    The people most affected in those number of deaths are often poor, often elderly. So, they're often people who don't have that much power. So, it's the most vulnerable people in society who are affected by this, who are affected by this with some regularity.

    So, there hasn't been outrage, but there is — discussion has begun. You can see it online, you can see it among some people about, well, should this be classed as a natural disaster? Should the response be coordinated in the way you would deal with any other large calamity?


    Is there any sense of when some relief might come?


    Well, this is the pre-monsoon phase.

    So, the monsoon is expected to hit the Indian mainland on the southwestern coast around the end of this month. But, obviously, this being a long country, it will take a long time — or at least it will take a few days for it to spread around different parts of the country, days and weeks.

    And so, in Delhi, for example, where the temperature on the 26th of May touched 44.5 degrees Celsius — that's about 114 degrees Fahrenheit — we're not expecting any sort of sustained relief until early June, the 3rd of June, according to weather forecasters.

    So it's going to take some time. It will still be a few days before we get some sustained relief around the country, and longer than a few days for certain parts of the country.


    Nikhil Kumar from TIME magazine in New Delhi, thank you very much for joining us.


    Thank you.

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