Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Heat doesn’t kill people ... poverty does

The following is an op-ed essay that I emailed the newspaper editor a while ago as the old country was getting set for the monsoon after yet another intense summer.  But, the essay hasn't made it to print, for whatever reason.  So, hey, as the editor/publisher of this blog, I can always "publish" that here ;)

If there were a weather lobby that is the equivalent of the National Rifle Association, then the argument might be “heat doesn’t kill people, but poverty does.”

The monsoon season has set in the Indian Subcontinent and, as always, the summer that preceded it was intense, hot, and deadly. In India, where large areas of the country experienced triple-digit temperatures, with a high of 117 degrees in a couple of places, more than 2,000 died during the nasty heat wave. Pakistan, which has a much smaller population than India’s, registered nearly 1,300 deaths, most of them in the city of Karachi.

For those of us here in the gorgeous and temperate Pacific Northwest, even 90-plus degree days are insufferable. But, we are well aware that in the United States too there are a number of regions and cities that routinely experience triple-digit summer temperatures for weeks. In Las Vegas, for instance, it is a rare day in July that the daytime high stays below 100 and nighttime lows seldom fall below 85. Summers in Texas and Oklahoma are legendary.

We don’t always pause to wonder why people don’t die in huge numbers when Vegas broils, while people seem to drop dead in Karachi’s heat.

One might also wonder why India’s neighbor, Bangladesh, did not suffer comparable deaths during the summer. For one, the high temperature on a typical summer day in Bangladesh might only be in the high 90s. But, more importantly, Bangladesh has invested a lot more into human development than even India. This is evident in one of the most important measures of human existence: life expectancy at birth in Bangladesh is 71 years, compared to 66 in India.

India, with 1.25 billion people is a lot bigger than Bangladesh that has only 156 million. Aggregating the billion-plus into one huge country masks the differences that exist within, and hides away the acute poverty that is sometimes even worse than the conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even within India, there are plenty of places where the summer heat seems like a killer but doesn’t really kill—because those places have remarkably lower poverty rates. In the city of Chennai, where my parents live, my father complains that the hot days of summer that began in mid-April do not seem to be ending anytime soon. But, the city and the state in which it is located—Tamil Nadu—have much better Human Development Indicators than most of the rest of India and, thus, the heat doesn’t kill people.

The poorest of the poor in countries like India or Pakistan do not find it easy to escape from the heat, especially if they are sidewalk dwellers. Access to potable water can be a challenge, particularly in rural areas where water supplies might be limited and which only the monsoon will replenish. It was a double-whammy this summer in Karachi—Ramadan coincided with the heatwave. Even if a thirsty urban poor was ready to pay top rupees for a glass of water, commercial food and drink establishments were closed in order to comply with the religious and government rules on respecting the Ramadan fasting during the day. It is, after all, the poor who are out and about in the heat, which is why we do not read about the business and political leaders of Pakistan succumbing to the heat.

Fasting during Ramadan is, of course, the practice in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Summers in those countries are brutal as well. Yet, reports of heat-wave deaths from those countries do not make the news, not because of any censorship but because there are no such happenings in large numbers. The acute poverty that one finds in some parts of India or Pakistan is not to be found in Iran. Simply put, it is poverty that kills!

The worst of the heat and dust of the Subcontinent has yielded to the monsoons. Again, it is typically the poorest whose lives will be severely affected when the rains come down in a hurry. To complicate things, experts predict that extreme heat and flooding will be even more worrisome with global climate change.

If there is any good news here, it is that the poverty rate has been significantly reduced over the past couple of decades. Along with that, with governments investing in people—via schools, health programs, water supply and sanitation, for instance—the human condition has been improving as well. The more such positive changes happen, the lower are the chances of thousands dying from the heat-waves. Now, if only those changes can happen as rapidly as ice cubes melting in the Karachi summer!


Ramesh said...

This is a brilliant oped - I am amazed that it hasn't been published as yet. You may have sent it to our good old left leaning newspaper, which of course doesn't like such ideas.

Of course, it is poverty that kills. Which is why I admire the way China has prioritised poverty alleviation above all else. If India can emulate that (forget the political system - there is much economically that can be emulated), it would be a giant leap forward.

A blog post with which I could not agree more.

Sriram Khé said...

What? Ramesh commenting that this is brilliant, and he agrees with me? OMG!!! ;)

Thanks ...

Right from my teenage years, I have not been able to understand why India never ever put poverty and sanitation as its top two priorities. Dirty rotten scoundrels the politicians are who have messed up millions of humans. These scoundrels have screwed the people just like how the British Raj did :(

Anne in Salem said...

I can envision steps a government can take to improve sanitation and would agree that that falls under government responsibility. What does a government do to eliminate poverty? Anything a government does will place an undue burden on taxpayers and businesses and likely will produce little effect. For example, most economists dismiss the value of a $15 minimum wage as raising the multitudes out of poverty because of the lost jobs and the increased costs of goods which devalues the $15 immediately. The US already tried to legislate poverty out existence through bureaucracy, handouts, and programs, but they didn't work. Granted, most US poor live a millionaire's life compared to the poor in India or Pakistan. I just don't see how government can do this effectively, economically, or efficiently.

Sriram Khé said...

"Granted, most US poor live a millionaire's life compared to the poor in India or Pakistan"
The issues you refer to in the context of $15/hr minimum wage and the issues of acute poverty in South Asia are, to use that cliched expression, apples and oranges. In addressing acute poverty, the China example that Ramesh always brings up is a wonderful comparator (though I have lots of problems with how China did that.)

When there is acute poverty, governments can do a lot. Plenty. In fact, I would even argue that the market will fail in trying to address acute poverty. I.e., we can not leave it to the market forces to wipe out the kind of poverty that we see in South Asia, which in some places is even worse than the acute poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. A concerted government led approach works is what even a Bangladesh shows. Sri Lanka did that even better, even decades ago.

The $15 wage rate is not about addressing acute poverty.

Ramesh said...

I am late in responding to Anne, but respond I must !

Governments can do a lot to reduce poverty Anne. Not in the way you worry about in higher taxes, highers minimum wages, etc etc. But here is a laundry list of things China has done, but India hasn't

- Great infrastructure - Ports, roads, railways, name it. Only the government can do this
- Abundant availability of power. Get rid of artificial power tariffs, let private and public investment coexist and set down strict environmental and safety safeguards and keep the NIMBYists away.
- Stable and sensible taxation policies. Neither free giveaways to companies, nor excessive taxation. And stay with the law and don;t tinker it every year
- Invest in education and healthcare in the population. You may be scared of healthcare law in the US, but both India and China have to go a long way in providing basic health care
- Allow free trade, governed by strict enforcement of law. Avoid protectionism, bureaucracy, red tape, etc etc
Don;t run massive deficits in government budgets and keep inflation in check.

I could go on and on, but these are all the duties of the government. China has done this reasonably well, India hasn't. The results are there to see in China. Half a billion people lifted out of poverty in 30 years. Stunning.

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