Two days after the Kharghar heatwave tragedy, which combined with the stampede-like situation took the lives of 13 people and left scores in hospitals, the focus is on how callously the issue of heat and heatwaves is treated. For a country that’s usually hot, where high summer temperatures are common, rising or high heat is seen as just one more variable to take in one’s stride and sweat it out. However, as the tragedy shows, heat is a silent killer and deserves the same attention that, say, floods do. In mid-April itself, daytime temperatures in cities and towns have breached the 40 degrees C mark this year. May and June promise to slay more records.
Recognising this would – or should – lead governments and local authorities to Heat Action Plans (HAPs) which typically detail out steps to be taken in preparation of a heatwave, chart information flow to people, and list remedial measures to be put in place. India’s first HAP was drawn up in Odisha in 1999 while the first city-level HAP was prepared ten years ago in Ahmedabad. Opinion is divided on whether the Ahmedabad HAP is responsible for keeping heat-related deaths and illnesses low, but the HAP has made it incumbent on authorities to respond to high heat as a health hazard. Many states and cities do not have HAPs yet and those that do have half-hearted plans which, reviews have shown, do not focus on the most vulnerable people.
This came through in the Kharghar tragedy as well. Lakhs of people had gathered in the open maidan waiting in the morning-noon heat for the Maharashtra government programme to start; some had even been living there for a day or two absorbing the high temperatures. The heat was the same for people on the dais that afternoon – Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and socio-religious activist Appasaheb Dharmadhikari – and the lakhs witnessing the conferring of Maharashtra Bhushan award to Dharmadhikari. But those on the dais were exposed for fewer hours and protected; the poor and vulnerable in the open were not. Their scramble to get to some shade and water facilities resulted in the stampede-like situation, and the combined outcome were the fatalities. India’s governments – at the centre, in states, in local bodies – must wake up to the hazards of extreme heat. Climate Change is a harsh reality of our times.
The ‘privilege’ of tyranny
There was an era in India when even verbal observations of the Supreme Court mattered to the governments of the day as if they were a rap on the knuckles, and there is this time now when the apex court’s observations do not even ruffle a feather. What else explains the imperturbable insouciance of the central government on the Bilkis Bano rape convicts’ remission case in which it, along with the Gujarat government, cited “privilege” to not produce the records and files connected with the remission? “What is the problem in showing us (the files) today? You are in contempt for not producing it,” observed Justice KM Joseph on the SC bench hearing the case.
The sentences of eleven men convicted of gang rape of Bilkis Bano and killing her family members during the Gujarat carnage in 2002 were released in October last year. This led to a furore in large sections of society and elation in others, especially right-wing Hindutva supporters who welcomed the men in a ceremonial manner causing disgust among many. The Gujarat government had then told the SC that it decided to release the convicts as “their behaviour was found to be good” and after approval from the central government. The plea now in the SC demands to know on what basis was this done, to which the governments clearly did not have answers or could not share information without being embarrassed. They, therefore, cited “privilege”.
The remark of “contempt” is unlikely to faze either the Gujarat or central governments given their approach to this case. However, it should alarm society that governments can do as they wish and shrug off accountability even in the apex court. This does not bode well for our democracy where, at all times and under all circumstances, the rule of law should prevail. Bilkis Bano, and all of us, deserve to know the grounds on which the governments decided to let off the men. This is not a small matter but the governments could not care less.
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