Bihar heatwave response reveals flaws in India’s heat strategy

Bihar’s heat action plan contains important strategies but is underfunded and poorly implemented – a theme common across Indian states’ responses to the growing problem of extreme heat, experts say
<p>A woman drinks water at a marketplace during a hot day in India. On 18 April 2023 several northern and eastern cities recorded maximum temperatures above 44 degrees Celsius. (Image: Javed Dar/Alamy)</p>

A woman drinks water at a marketplace during a hot day in India. On 18 April 2023 several northern and eastern cities recorded maximum temperatures above 44 degrees Celsius. (Image: Javed Dar/Alamy)

Irshad Ahmad, a shopkeeper in the city of Patna, was forced to close his store for several days in mid-April in the face of a record-breaking heatwave. Temperatures in the eastern Indian state of Bihar exceeded 44 degrees Celsius, several degrees higher than average.

Across the state, the April heatwave crippled everyday life for more than 10 days, with poor and working-class people bearing the brunt of the discomfort and inconvenience. This week, heatwaves returned to Bihar.

After receiving heatwave alerts from the state government’s Disaster Management Department (DMD), Ahmad closed his shop. He had a stark choice: lose his income or be exposed to heat that can cause serious health issues – and even death.

The deadly consequences of heat

The World Health Organization estimates that globally, more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves between 1998 and 2017.

Extreme heat causes dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat rashes, swelling of the lower limbs, cramps, headaches and weakness can also occur.

In 2019, nearly 200 people died in three districts of Bihar (Gaya, Aurangabad and Patna) due to heatwaves.

Bihar encapsulates some of the greatest challenges for India as it seeks to respond to the problem of more frequent extreme weather events while transitioning to a low-carbon economy. With the third-largest population (over 100 million) of all Indian states, it has the lowest per capita GDP, estimated at INR 46,292 (USD 560) a year in 2021. Agriculture, deeply dependent on rainfall and fed by the Himalayan rivers of the Ganga, Koshi and others, accounts for 77% of employment, and 25% of the state’s GDP.

How does India define a heatwave?

The India Meteorological Department declares a heatwave if the maximum temperature hits or exceeds 40C in the plains, 30C in hilly regions and 37C along the coast.

Recent analysis by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) initiative found that climate change made the April 2023 heatwave in India and Bangladesh 30 times more likely, and forecast that India is likely to see more frequent heatwaves “between today and reaching 2C global warming”. The group of WWA climate scientists estimated that such heatwaves can be expected every one to two years.

Chandan Choudhary, a gas vendor in Bihar, also abandoned his work for 10 days. He told The Third Pole he was distressed to have lost his income, but relieved to be out of the scorching sun.

Both Ahmad and Choudhary made these decisions after the state government circulated WhatsApp messages to the local media and communities. These early warning alerts and advisories are part of the Bihar Heat Action Plan (HAP), one of the systems set up in 23 heatwave-prone Indian states to try to mitigate the effects of extreme heat.

What does the Bihar Heat Action Plan involve?

Heat action plans outline how authorities can prepare for heatwaves by issuing guidelines to limit citizens’ exposure to heat.

The Disaster Management Department (DMD) for Bihar is the key department for the implementation of the Heat Action Plan, and works with the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA) and urban bodies. Apart from the DMD, a crisis management group headed by the chief secretary of the state is responsible for the overall coordination and monitoring of disaster management activities.

In recent years, the DMD and BSDMA have carried out awareness programmes and information campaigns around extreme heat.

Aside from shop closures, actions outlined in the plan include changing office and school hours. Work hours are altered for the poorest rural workers who fall under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) job guarantee scheme. This April, primary schools were closed in Muzaffarpur district.

The Bihar Heat Action Plan notes that though the state government is primarily responsible for its implementation, because of the cross-sectoral impacts of heatwaves no single department has sole responsibility. It also points out that all stakeholders, such as government agencies and district administrations, should coordinate when a heatwave hits.

Gaps in funding and implementation

Despite the existence of a plan, officials and workers told The Third Pole that the infrastructure required to make the policy effective is missing, and that specific funds for HAP actions have not been kept aside.

“We have no such provision, different departments spend money from their allocation to implement the Heat Action Plan,” said Hari Narayan Paswan, joint secretary at the DMD.

As a result, many of the state’s most vulnerable people are not getting the relief they should have access to. “Neither rest sheds nor drinking water facilities were made at all MGNREGA work sites,” said an MGNREGA employee in Gaya, which is frequently one of the hottest districts in the state. The employee added that rehydration tablets are not available at sites. “All of these [measures] are part of the Heat Action Plan only on paper. Workers mostly rest under nearby trees if there are any.”

The Third Pole was told that most of the Heat Action Plan’s directives on extreme heat preparation and response were either unfulfilled or half-heartedly implemented, five years on from the HAP first being prepared.

Even safe drinking water is not available at several primary health centres
Aurangabad district health official, speaking anonymously

Some arrangements have been made at government-run district hospitals and medical colleges. For example, Gaya-based surgeon Ranjan Kumar Singh said that a 30-bed dedicated heatwave ward was created at the government-run Anugrah Narayan Magadh Medical College. But despite repeated instructions by the DMD to health departments, these facilities were missing in most of the hundreds of primary health centres (PHCs).

“Lack of oral rehydration salt tablets, IV fluids and lifesaving medicines are a common trend in PHCs. Even safe drinking water is not available at several places,” a district health official in Aurangabad district told The Third Pole, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Power cuts are another problem. In March, Bihar’s principal energy secretary Sanjeev Hans announced that in accordance with the heat action plan, the power supply would not be interrupted during heatwaves. However, during the April heatwave, power was erratic in rural areas. “Power supply was very poor during heatwaves when we require it most,” said Pappu Singh, who lives in the village of Jamharu in Patna district.

According to government data, more than 500 public pyau (drinking water outlets) have been built by municipal corporations. However, The Third Pole’s reporter could only see a few pyau at the roadsides.

How to improve India’s heat action plans

Pradhan Parthasarathy, an associate professor at the Central University of South Bihar’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told The Third Pole that Bihar’s Heat Action Plan was formulated without the input of climate researchers.

“How can you prepare a heat action plan without consulting academic institutions in Bihar which have been working on climate change issues in Bihar and the Gangetic plain region?” Parthasarathy said.

In March 2023, Indian think tank the Centre for Policy Research published research identifying six key areas for improvement in India’s heat action plans. Leading this list was the observation that most HAPs are “not built for local context and have an oversimplified view of the hazard [of heatwaves]”. The assessment also describes the plans as “poor at identifying and targeting vulnerable groups”, “underfunded”, having “weak legal foundations”, “insufficiently transparent” and with “sectorally targeted” capacity-building.

Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and co-author of the report, said the Bihar Heat Action Plan plays a crucial role in bringing heatwave preparation to the Indo-Gangetic plains. “The plan makes some interesting moves in trying to link heat resilience interventions with existing schemes like the Mukhya Mantri School Safety Programme and MGNREGA,” he said. “But a big drawback remains: the HAP does not seem to be funded, and lacks an explicit vulnerability assessment that would allow the government to pinpoint which parts of the state need the most attention.”

He pointed to official government records that suggest around 1,000 people in Bihar died due to heatwaves between 2000 and 2014.

“That shows how important proper heat planning is to the state. The next step in the evolution of the Heat Action Plan will involve making sure it is properly funded, implemented and reviewed,” Pillai said.

Devopriya Dutta, an environmental activist who works with Patna-headquartered NGO Tarumitra, echoed this. Heat Action Plans will only be helpful if authorities step out of their comfort zone and work on implementation at the ground level, according to Dutta.