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Assam cooks up ways for schools to cope with extreme heat

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 15 Aug 2013 08:49 GMT
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Students at the Jalukanibari higher secondary school in Jorhat, Assam, during June's heat wave. PHOTO/UB
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GUWAHATI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Authorities in the northeast Indian state of Assam are mulling measures to deal with the impact of extreme heat in schools, after temperatures in June shot up several degrees higher than normal, and stayed there.

The state experienced a record-high temperature of 39 degrees Celsius on June 14, with the thermometer registering more than 37 degrees for much of the month.

Meteorology department officials said this was completely unexpected, as temperatures in June are usually around 32 degrees.

The monsoon arrived in Assam on June 7, bringing some rain. But two days later, cyclonic winds developed in the northwest Bay of Bengal, diverting the monsoon winds and boosting mercury levels, according to MK Gupta, deputy director general of the regional meteorological centre.

“This sudden rise in temperature, which is being witnessed more recently, is an offshoot of climate change triggered by global warming,” RM Bhagat, a senior scientist at the Tocklai Experimental Station, a research centre in Assam, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Due to the heat wave, the district administrations stepped in urgently, and issued directives to all schools to change their class times from the usual hours of 9 am to around 3 pm. Some switched their timetable to between 7 am and 9 am, and others ran lessons from 9 am to 11 am for most of the month.

Kamrup Metro district was the first to make the move, followed by Dibrugarh district and several others that were also severely affected. 

“This order was issued due to the ongoing heat wave across the state, and keeping in mind problems school children face in such inclement weather,” said Kamrup Metro district deputy commissioner Ashutosh Agnihotri.

EXAMS POSTPONED

School staff said they had never come across a situation where lesson times had to be changed because of the temperature.

“The month of June this year was warmer than usual from the beginning, and suddenly from the middle of the month the temperature shot up to almost 39 degrees Celsius, which is something completely unheard of,” said Pranjal Saikia, a senior teacher at the Jalukanibari higher secondary school in Jorhat district.

Saikia added that the heat was so fierce that some students were close to falling ill and had to be asked to take rest.

“The directive...regarding retiming of the classes was a big relief to both us and the students, and even on those days when the classes were retimed, we asked the students to drink an adequate amount of water while at school,” said Saikia.

In Guwahati, where the situation was far worse due to a lack of greenery and tree cover, schools even had to postpone their exams, which were scheduled for June.

“In our school the exams - which are usually held around the second or third week of June had to be postponed - and we brought forward the holidays,” said Sabita Gogoi, a senior teacher at Adarsha Asom Vidyalaya school in Kamrup Metro district. The summer vacation took place almost three weeks early, and exams were held in early August, the first time such a thing has happened in Assam, Gogoi added.

The situation was similar in Lakhimpur and Sivasagar, where there is more greenery and shade and less pollution.

“We changed the timing of our classes as soon as we got the directive from the district administration, and if the directive hadn’t been issued, many students would have fallen ill,” said Bijoy Nath, a senior teacher at Brahmaputra school in Sivasagar district, which is a green area with many tea estates.

AIR CON UNAFFORDABLE

District authorities have said they will monitor the weather situation, and issue further advice if needed. They are also planning to hold brain-storming sessions soon to seek solutions to the problem in case it happens again.

In a landmark 2011 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that heat waves of greater magnitude would happen more often in the future, alongside other more extreme weather events around the globe.

In Assam, putting air conditioners (ACs) into classrooms is not a feasible option, said Kamrup Metro district deputy commissioner Agnihotri.

“There are a few private schools in the state which can afford to install ACs, but it is important to note that there are thousands of government schools and private schools with a limited budget where it is not possible at all,” he said.

Nonetheless, the administration is in favour of dealing with the situation, he added, spelling out a series of possible measures for the coming years.

“The administration will be focusing on changing school timings, ensuring that schools keep ample water in stock for the students, and also modifying school buildings through architectural changes,” Agnihotri said.

School representatives said they supported these ideas, which are within their capabilities.

“The steps...are practical ones, and can be done in all schools—whether big or small, government or private,” said Saikia.

The Assam health department said it had published advertisements in all the state’s major newspapers, advising people how to treat heat stroke, and to stay indoors whenever possible.

Amarjyoti Borah is a freelance writer based in northeast India.

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