No one died from heatstroke: Obfuscation of Ballia deaths does not bode well

People cremate their relatives, who died from heat-related illnesses, in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia, on 19 June 2023. Over the next few months, the state administration has consistently claimed that the sudden rise in deaths in the district in June were not related to the heat wave in the region. Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo
19 October, 2023

In the afternoon of 16 June, Parmeshwar Kumar Keshari’s family rushed him to the district hospital in Ballia, Uttar Pradesh. Parmeshwar, who was in his early seventies, had suddenly started vomiting, followed by diarrhoea, high fever and body aches. Shravan Kumar Keshari, one of his sons, told me that Parmeshwar was “fit and had no ailments. That day, he followed his usual routine, had a proper breakfast, but in the afternoon, he fell really sick.” By 10.45 pm, Parmeshwar was dead. Shravan said that a doctor doing the rounds at the hospital told the family that Parmeshwar “died due to a heat stroke.” Ballia district had recorded a high of 43 degrees Celsius that day, and temperatures had been consistently over forty degrees since the first week of June.

As I spoke to the family at their house, in the village of Rudrapur Gaighat, Dinesh Kumar Keshari, the eldest son, described the harrowing conditions at the hospital that day. “There was no stretcher and no bed available, so we had to place my father on the floor. The doctors treated him there initially.” He added that they “somehow managed to get a bed after waiting for two hours, when another patient died. There was no AC and no cooler in the emergency ward that day.” Dinesh said that there were a few fans, but not a single one was working properly. “There was utter chaos in the hospital, and it was extremely hot in there.” Shravan said that there were scores of patients in the hospital exhibiting the same symptoms as their father.

The hospital’s chief medical superintendent, Dr Divakar Singh, told local journalists that around twenty-five people had died that day of diseases caused by the heat wave and that sixty percent of the patients at the hospital had been suffering from heatstroke. Local media reports vary wildly on the number of deaths between 15 and 16 June—between thirty-four and fifty-four. The very next day, the health minister, Brijesh Pathak, transferred Divakar to Azamgarh, and the denials began. The government rejected Divakar’s claim of deaths caused by the heat wave. According to a report published by Hindustan on 20 June, the hospital had recorded 97 deaths in June 2022, while there had already been 154 deaths till 18 June this year, out of which 100 deaths occurred between 11 June and 18 June alone. Another report in the same newspaper, on 23 June, noted that 160 deaths were recorded at the hospital between 13 June to 23 June.

Immediately after Divakar’s transfer, the district magistrate, Ravindra Kumar, took overall control of the situation. The chief medical officer, Jayant Kumar, became the public face dealing with the crisis; and SK Yadav was appointed as the new CMS. Soon after, the health department appointed a three-member team of experts to investigate the increase in deaths in the district. The team—comprising Dr AK Singh, the director for communicable diseases; Dr KN Tiwari, the director for medical care; and Dr Mohit Sharma, the joint director for communicable diseases—reached Ballia on 18 June.