Heatwave killed people, numbers killed conscience

By Garima Dutt | Updated: Oct 06, 2015, 15:40 PM IST

“Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” — “Let them eat cake” – quipped Queen Marie- Antoinette, bride of France’s King Louis XVI, some where around in 1789 when she was told that her French subjects were dying and had no bread to eat.

And as the story goes, with this insensitive remark she became one of the most hated symbols of the corrupt and debauched French monarchy and perhaps ignited the revolution that would eventually cause her to literally lose her head.

But before this write-up takes us back in history and opens up another debate on whether the Queen actually said something as callous as that; let me clarify that this is one of the most famous stories one has heard out of the many oft-repeated ‘anecdotal history’ tales, frequently cited to perhaps illustrate how disconnected the monarchy was from the harsh realities on the ground.

Cut to the present, I found myself unwittingly in this ‘Marie-Antoinette like situation’ when the other day in a casual conversation I just said ‘Kahan hai garmi? I don’t feel the heat. Perhaps I do not venture out in the sun as much and when I do it is just to get into one air-conditioned place from another.’

The ironic subtext of these carefree words were lost on me but came back with a vengeance last night when I happened to discuss with a close friend how the heatwave in the country has claimed over 1400 lives.

It dawned on me that I would have literally felt the heat if I were a rookie journalist (though I never felt the heat back then as well) or a new graduate looking for a job, dropping my CV place to place or a hawker, a construction worker, a farmer, a labourer, a traffic cop — basically anyone who has to work hard daily under the sun to put bread (read roti /rice) on their tables.

To recount the numbers here once again — Andhra Pradesh & Telangana alone account for over 1300 deaths and the heatwave is making lives miserable in Maharashtra, UP, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Punjab, Odisha and Haryana.

Read in a leading daily newspaper today that the heatwave has claimed three lives in Delhi. A 45-year-old man called Yaseen (finally a name somewhere) was found dead near a drain in Defence Colony on May 25. The other two ‘nameless’ men died in their sleep outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on May 26.

The cause of death: None other but extreme weather conditions.

Are the 1400 people who died human?

I feel how smug we have become doing our corporate drudgery (and well thank God for that, for I am writing this sitting in AC room and not outside when the sun is at its peak) that we never realise that we know absolutely nothing about who these 1400 people are.

Next it dawned on me that perhaps we do not see these dead 1400 as people. They are just arithmetic for us.

Nameless numbers.

‘Yeah, died of heat; died of cold in his sleep. Hypothermia. I saw it on TV news, I read it in a newspaper that so many are dead’ — Over.

‘It’s so hot, let’s grab a mango shake’.  And there is no talk. Change of conversation.

As we continued to discuss, my friend then told me how he has never gotten out of the shock of having found a rickshaw puller dead in his sleep a few years ago on a cold Delhi winter morning in Patparganj.

“About 5 to 6 rickshaw pullers used to sleep on their rickshaws and the next day when I started for office in my car, I saw all others were gone and only one rickshaw hadn’t moved and few men had gathered around it. I stopped to check and they told me — sahab raat ko thand mein khatam ho gaya neend mein”.

The incident comes back to haunt him on cold winter nights each time he sits to work at his desk and pulls a blanket over his legs to keep them warm.

I too remember, a few schoolmates falling unconscious in the morning assembly during my school days in Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, when it got too hot. As peak summers approached, just a few days before the schools would close for holidays, the morning prayers time was cut short and afternoon assembly was completely terminated. 

Another compelling memory I have is reading about how my brother’s school St Michaels Pusa Road, New Delhi opens its classrooms for people to seek shelter in it during cold winter nights.

But I guess not many of us have had a brush with anyone very close to us who must have died of heatstroke or cold.

All we know is that of late we have been reading and watching over and over again in newspapers and news channels about the killer Indian heatwave and the number of lives it has claimed is the highest in the last two decades. 

Do we really care?

If 100 lions were to die in the jungles due to heatwave, it would become national news and its hows and whys would be dissected to pieces.

Or God forbid, a few kids from a posh school in Gurgaon or Delhi were to fall sick due to heat stroke, we would definitely see it covered in a big way by the media and get to know the human faces behind those numbers. This would garner response (and rightly so) from a cross-section of the civil society.

But what is mind-boggling is that fact that a regularly occurring tragedy like heatwave deaths doesn’t receive as much attention from neither the media, nor the government or from the members of the civil society like us.

It is a pity that the media doesn’t think it makes business or news sense to invest monies and send reporters to gather more information about those who meet with such un-heroic, plain deaths.

On our part, the corporate culture that has given us the most-warped logic I have ever heard — ‘the poorest of the poor can work their way upwards and become successful and we have many examples to prove’ — has desensitized us enough to emotionally distance ourselves from such ordinary mishaps.

In the absence of any social security cover, to be born poor is a reason enough to die of cold or heat in a (as the West puts it) ‘third world country’!

Pray this is not a national disaster! Not a flood or a drought or an earthquake but people simply dying of heat. This happens every year. So what is the rant about?

Is it not a matter of shame that even as we go about signing billion dollar deals abroad, the faceless, nameless common man is dying on the roads?

Shouldn’t the government think of putting better solutions in place since the current shelter homes are not enough and there are not enough points in the city to drink water? 

Shouldn’t the media— that insensitively thrusts its cameras in the faces of people affected by floods, and other disasters make an effort to put names to these numbers? Show us human case studies so that the collective conscience of the civil society takes up this issue, talks about it and puts pressure on the government to include heatwave in its list of natural calamities along with earthquake, drought, floods, hailstorm etc. and put a compensation scheme in place for the families of these people.

There are ’many Indias within India’. And possibly one cannot relate with another but we all can relate to the pain of such pointless deaths and at least show a collective acknowledgment of the same. 

I personally urge the government to take cognizance of this and make this ‘small yet urgent matter’ a part of its ‘Saal Ek Shuruaat Anek’ agenda to take a step towards making an India that is not just ‘powerful’ but also ‘human’.

Do we need many more summers of discontent and deaths to realize that we are creating anti-social elements amongst us by turning our back on them?  

I hope not.

PS: The online search revealed that most historians have noted that Queen Marie-Antoinette could have never uttered those exasperating words. Despite her lavish lifestyle the queen was generally sensitive towards the poor French population and was a caring, feeling woman who donated regularly to charitable causes. But then, history and story-telling is seldom forgiving and often multifaceted.