By Kalvakuntla Kavitha
The winters have been late this year but many have already died in north India. According to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, 3,500 homeless people died in the city due to cold last winter. A recent report published by skymetweather.com said that severe cold was the second major reason for deaths in India, after lightning. Between 2002 and 2012, 10,740 people died from exposure to cold and avalanche, while lightning claimed 27,338 lives. On an average, 826 people die every year during the winter months.
There has been a rise in the number of deaths due to cold since 2007: The India Meteorological Department (IMD) data say the minimum temperature in 1901 was between 14.16 degrees Celsius and 16.5 degrees Celsius (October to February). In 2012, the minimum temperature ranged from 13.8 degrees Celsius to 16.4 degrees Celsius during the same period.
The data also show that there is a correlation between winter temperatures and deaths. As many as 1,037 people died from exposure to cold and avalanche in 2012, when the minimum temperature fell to 13.8 degrees Celsius — lowest since 2001. Similarly, a large number of deaths were reported in 2013, 2008 and 2002, when the minimum temperature fell below 14 degrees Celsius.
Despite so many deaths every winter, the central government is yet to draw up a scheme to provide shelters to the poor during the winter months. Whenever the death toll rises, governments wake up and build temporary shelters. Most of them are uninhabitable, lack basic hygiene and are unsafe. This has been the situation since Independence. Yet there has been no discussion on the issue in Parliament and assemblies. Is this indifference because of the fact these poor people don’t belong to any particular vote-bank? I have not seen any public outrage over these deaths, either. Most of these deaths take place in cities. This is because in villages, we still have a strong sense of community and that saves many homeless people.
The Centre must instruct states to make effective and permanent arrangements to prevent deaths from cold. These shelters can double as community spaces in other seasons. The governments can also rope in resident welfare associations in cities and local municipalities or gram panchayats in urban areas and villages to help it in this endeavour.
I find it shameful that legislators and governments only wake up when people start dying due to cold and then forget all about them when the winter season passes.