Wednesday, 3 June 2015

India heatwave: death toll passes 2,500, post-mortem procedures changed

As the block of ice under her husband's body melted, Chanaga Ratnam wondered whether local officials would arrive in time to verify that he did indeed die from India's extreme heatwave, thus qualifying her for compensation.

The 55-year-old could not afford more ice to preserve Aankaiah's remains for much longer, and was keen to cremate him as quickly as possible in line with local custom.

The southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, which accounted for around two-thirds of 2,500 Indians who died from the recent searing temperatures, has responded to such concerns, easing conditions for paying compensation of 100,000 rupees ($1,600).

"Now the procedure has been changed; no post-mortem report is required," said Y. Maithreya, local administrator of Venkatagiri, a town near the village where Ratnam lives.

Most families are reluctant to conduct post mortems as superstitions abound about the removal of organs from the dead.

Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu's state government, which initially insisted on a post-mortem report to award compensation, realised it was impractical.

Now, three local officials will inquire into deaths reported to be from the heat. If bodies have been cremated, five witnesses, usually neighbours or friends, are called together to determine the cause of death.

"We have to verify all of this, since the compensation has to reach the right people; not those who have died of natural causes or heart attacks," said Maithreya.

The change comes as no comfort to Ratnam, widow of Chanaga Aankaiah, a 59-year-old farm labourer who died of sunstroke on Friday after going to work in fields around the village of Madhu Reddy Colony, near Gudur.

"They called him for some odd jobs in the fields and he went enthusiastically," she sobbed. "He came home, said he was unwell, drank some water and just died."


The Chanagas are among the poorest people in Andhra Pradesh, and work as farm labourers earning 150 rupees ($2.35) a day.

Doctors and support workers have fanned out across the state to hand out relief materials like rehydration drinks and saline solutions, advising people not to go outdoors in the afternoons.

"These deaths are easily avoidable," said M. Sudhir Kumar, a civil assistant surgeon at Dakkili Primary Healthcare Centre.

"All they need to do is follow basic precautions like avoiding working in the sun. Not many listen. What can we do? It's a problem of poverty." Recent natural disasters have highlighted India's vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Following floods in Uttarakhand, northern India, that killed nearly 6,000 in 2013, the heatwave is the next danger sign.

May was the hottest month on record in Andhra Pradesh for nearly four decades. A reported 1,677 people died from the heatwave in the state alone, up sharply from last year.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in 2014 that freak weather patterns in India due to global warming could become more frequent, resulting in huge loss of life and crops.

"The problem is made worse by people living in little huts with asbestos sheets for roofs," said V. Haripriya, Deputy District Medical and Health Officer at Venkatagiri.

"In villages in Andhra Pradesh it is very common for children to leave ageing parents behind while they seek a living in faraway cities. There is no one to care for the elderly."

Officials dismiss reports that Naidu's offer of compensation has led to over-reporting of heatwave deaths in Andhra Pradesh.

"It is wrong to say that the death toll figures include deaths due to old age or other reasons," said Tulasi Rani, the state's Special Commissioner for Disaster Management.

Heat or no heat, Aankaiah's wife Ratnam will have to head to the fields once her husband is cremated. With no sons to support her, she has no choice but to work to feed herself.

Wednesday 3 June 2015


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