Opinion News
June 26,2015

Heat and the arrogance of the elite

S Akbar Zaidi
Only the rich and the elite, in their air-conditioned homes and offices, know how to deal with Karachi’s killer heatwave. The advice they give to those who have suffered and are dying – invariably the poor, the infirm and the elderly – is to ‘stay cool, stay away from the sun, drink lots of water, wear light clothing’.
Such absurd advice. It is not heat that kills people, but poverty, lack of resources on account of poverty, and of course as we have seen in the case of Karachi, government ineptitude, inefficiency and complete absence.
There is little doubt that one needs lots of water to drink, to stay away from the sun, and to take such well-meaning precautions if one is to avoid suffering from heatstroke. But those who are well off, the rich and the elite, already have their chilled bottled mineral water, their air conditioners running even when their electricity supply has been interrupted, and even wear comfortable linen clothes, so well-suited to South Asia’s summer. If they ever need to go anywhere, it will be in their air-conditioned cars, to their air-conditioned offices or malls, or restaurants, or anywhere else they may choose to go. These people are best prepared to deal with any heatwave, mild or severe and debilitating.
Those who have been reporting on the over one thousand deaths in Karachi and in other parts of Sindh, profile the dead to include a category one generalises to be called ‘the poor’, those who are undernourished and are vulnerable to disease since they lack immunity, and daily wage workers who are possibly both, poor and undernourished, yet have to work in the heat in order to stay alive – a bitter irony here. The old, as they are vulnerable to the cold, so too are they to excess heat, and perhaps may not be able to take all the precautions suggested.
One infectious diseases specialist offering sound advice on how to deal with the heatwave writes: ‘One must take enough fluids to replace loss through excess perspiration and remain in cool and comfortable surroundings with free flow of air. Inner and outer clothes should be loose and air-permeable, the head should be covered with loosely woven material. Those working outdoors must consume extra fluid, and rest frequently in the shade. Cold showers are helpful...’
Who wouldn’t follow such useful tips, except that those who are the victims of the heat attacks are victims precisely because they are required to suffer in the sun and work under severe conditions. Also, because they are poor, it is a bit hard on them to expect that they have ‘comfortable surroundings with free flow of air’. It is not quite clear how the poor or the daily wage workers, who need all these services, will acquire them, even when they aren’t working in the sun, leave alone when they have to work to survive.
One cannot deny the fact that the absence of elected local government in Karachi, or metropolitan government in Karachi’s case, is also a major additional cause for the excessive deaths on account of the heat wave. No one is being held accountable for all those who have died because the responsibilities of taking care of those affected have been diluted and dissipated across institutions and organisations. Normally, a city government, the elected mayor of Karachi and his or her team, would not only be accountable but also responsible for both prevention and to take mitigative measures. Usually, and there are obvious exceptions, elected representatives are more approachable and more responsive to the needs of their constituency than are appointed administrators.
Elected local government, despite the strong concerns about elite capture which is built into the model of bourgeois democracy, also represents the common people, the poor, the middle classes, the non-elite, more than it does the elite. If elections and democracy mean garnering votes from all those who can vote, the voice of the elite is just one of those voices, and in fact, in numerical terms, not the majority. In Karachi we have seen elected representatives largely from the middle and lower-middle classes who represent the constituents of Azizabad, the many Gulshans, Federal B Area, Nazimabad, Liaqutabad, and such like. Cliftonians have their own representatives.
After devastating rains in Karachi some years ago, it was the elected local government and the mayor/nazim who undertook major development in the drainage system of the city to make sure that the water flowed through. If local elections had been held in Sindh, especially in Karachi, and elected representatives had been on hand, it is very probable that the scale of death on account of not having enough air conditioners or chilled mineral water would have been far lower.
The author is a political economist.

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