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3 April 2017 Editorial

 

3 APRIL 2017

Coping with summer

Heatwaves may become more frequent; good action plans can help prepare for the worst 

Torrid summers, when the mercury soars 4°C to 6°C above the average and produces heatwaves in several States between April and June, may become more frequent in coming years. Not only will there be more hot days, the spells of heat stress sweeping across much of India are likely to grow longer. The scientific consensus is that heatwaves will grow stronger and expand their geographical spread in the south, influenced by the sea surface temperature in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With rising greenhouse gases, their impact can only intensify. Though the number of people dying due to heat stress last year was half of the previous year’s toll of 2,040, the need to evolve detailed action plans at the level of States, districts and cities is now critical. It is encouraging that the National Disaster Management Authority is guiding States, in partnership with the India Meteorological Department, to evolve heat action plan protocols. The response to distress caused by excessive heat has to be both speedy and professional. Europe upgraded its preparedness to handle a crisis after a crippling heatwave in 2003 killed thousands of people, over 14,800 of them in France alone. In the Indian context, crop failures and disruption of electricity supply due to sudden peak demand are common. People experience dehydration, heat cramps and deadly heatstroke. The elderly are particularly at risk, since higher temperatures affect blood viscosity and raise the risk of thrombosis.

Better meteorological forecasting can provide an early warning about a coming hot spell during the summer window. This gives the NDMA and the States sufficient opportunity to launch an action protocol: to inform the public as soon as the temperature crosses the threshold fixed by the IMD, advise on precautionary measures, and aid those who are most vulnerable, such as older adults, farm workers and those pursuing outdoor vocations. Ahmedabad, for instance, drew up a city-level action plan in the wake of its 46.8°C heatwave of 2010 with support from public health institutions. Preparing the health system to identify symptoms of heat stress and providing treatment through urban health centres is one intervention it decided upon. Reviewing school timetables, rescheduling work timings to cooler hours, making water widely available and reserving religious sites and libraries as cooling centres were others. European and American policy responses, such as creating green and blue urban spaces to provide tree shade and higher moisture, as well as housing design that cuts heat through the albedo effect of reflected solar energy, hold universal appeal. Some of these passive defences are actually integral to vernacular practices and will serve everyone well. It is essential to study the efficacy of heat action plans and share the results across States to achieve best practices.

 

Wine and whimper

The Supreme Court order banning sale of liquor along highways is not fully thought out

 

When courts clarify earlier orders, the understanding is that they would have considered more facts, applied better reasoning, and foreseen later eventualities. But when the Supreme Court last week confirmed its December order on banning sale of liquor near National and State highways, it not only reiterated many of the impractical aspects of the original judgment, but went on to assert that the proscription would cover not just retail outlets but hotels and bars too. What distinguishes, or logically sets apart, the sale of liquor along highways from that along interior roads? Apparently, the order is intended to prevent drunk driving, which is without doubt a contributor to road accidents and fatalities. But if tougher laws can make up for weak enforcement, then judicial officers can just as well replace law-enforcers. The court’s clarification goes against the opinion Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi gave the Kerala government that the December order applied only to retail outlets and not to establishments such as bar-attached hotels, and beer and wine parlours. What was a harsh order is now draconian in its sweep. Retail outlets can perhaps move another 500 m with minimal expense and no great loss of clientele. But established hotels and clubs enjoy no such luxury. All of a sudden, what was a great advantage of location is a major disadvantage. The order does not exempt outlets in cities and towns, where most of the consumers are local residents, nor does it distinguish between hotel guests and passing drivers. If drunk driving along the highways is the provocation for the order, there can be no reason to cover clubs that serve only their members. It is one thing to order the closure of shops dotting the highways, and quite another to target establishments in cities and towns, which cannot move, and which will lose their clientele to others.

State governments face a huge loss in revenue. Smaller administrative units such as Union Territories will be the worst-hit. Such quirky orders have inevitably led to quirky responses. The UT of Chandigarh, for instance, has declared all city roads as urban roads. Puducherry, which includes enclaves such as Mahe, will find relocation of many shops impossible. They are caught between the highway and the sea. Goa, a small State that depends heavily on tourism, is in a similarly difficult situation. The relaxation of the liquor-free zone from 500 m to 220 m from the highways in the case of areas with a population of 20,000 or less might only partly address their concerns. More than a third of the liquor sale and consumption points will be hit. Prohibition as a policy has had a history of failure. While binge-drinking is undoubtedly a health hazard with serious social costs, bans of the sort adopted by courts and State governments such as Bihar are counterproductive. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes.

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