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  Opinion   Columnists  21 Jun 2024  Patralekha Chatterjee | India’s scorching heat divide rising, act now

Patralekha Chatterjee | India’s scorching heat divide rising, act now

Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at
Published : Jun 22, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jun 22, 2024, 12:00 am IST

Explore the impact of India's severe heatwave, revealing socio-economic disparities and health risks exacerbated by extreme temperatures

Light rainfall on Friday brought some relief to the people in Delhi after a relentless heatwave in the region for over a month. (Image: PTI)
 Light rainfall on Friday brought some relief to the people in Delhi after a relentless heatwave in the region for over a month. (Image: PTI)

It took a thief in Uttar Pradesh to expose India’s scorching heat divide. On an intensely hot day in early June, a man broke into a locked house in Lucknow’s Indiranagar neighbourhood, rummaged through the premises, and picked up valuables. Then, he spotted an air-conditioner. He switched it on, found a snug cushion, lay down, and fell asleep. When the police arrived, the thief was napping. The story generated much mirth in India’s scalding summer.

No one is laughing any more. Especially in Delhi/NCR and the vast swathes of the country reeling under a prolonged heatwave. Temperatures are rising above 46 degrees across much of north India, including in UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Jharkhand. At least 50 people have died in the current heatwave in the Delhi region, over 50 in UP and Odisha and at least 22 in Bihar. Arguably, intense heat is not unique to India. In the time of climate change, clearly, erratic, and extreme weather are the new norms. Heat stress is affecting people across the world.

But what needs to be sledgehammered is that in many countries, including India, policy response to extreme heat must factor in equity. Extreme heat affects us all, but not equally. That India is a deeply unequal country is no secret. But prolonged heatwaves, including the current one, brutally expose India’s deep social, cultural, and economic fault lines.

The Heatwave Havoc report, a new study by Greenpeace India and National Hawkers’ Federation, throws up valuable insights on how extreme heat impacts street vendors in Delhi, focusing on risks to health, livelihood challenges and adaptation strategies. According to the report, 49.27 per cent of street vendor respondents experienced a loss of income during heatwaves, with 80.08 per cent of them acknowledging a dip in the number of customers. 50.86 per cent of interviewees also said they face higher financial burdens due to additional household expenses with an average extra expenditure of Rs 4,896.52 during months of extreme heat.

Extreme heat inflames gender inequalities in health and income, according to recent research by US-based Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Centre (Arsht-Rock) in three countries -- India, Nigeria, and the United States -- examining current and projected conditions by 2050.

“Women lose 19 per cent of their paid working hours to heat, costing the Indian economy 0.8 per cent of its GDP, or roughly $67 billion annually,” says the report.

As the number of days of intense heat steadily rise, there can be no real sustainable solution unless we acknowledge this emerging thermal divide between those who can afford or have access to air-conditioned environments and can live and work there a major part of the day, and those who cannot, and must necessarily deal with intense heat for long stretches or risk reduced earnings. The latter make up the bulk of India’s informal sector -- the mainstay of the Indian economy. Most construction workers, farmers, street vendors, delivery boys, domestic helpers and many others do not have the option of working from home; many live in homes that are not air-cooled. This does not take away from the deep discomfort that everyone, rich and poor, are grappling with. But the degree matters. Sometimes it is a matter of life and death.

The intensity of the heat has renewed discussions on many critical issues, such as accurate data on heat-related deaths. Many experts feel the official tally is an underestimate though India now has official guidelines which specifically state that a death must be considered heat-related, even if the patient has pre-existing health conditions which are aggravated by extreme temperatures.

But guidelines are only a starting point. There are many issues which are part of the Indian reality and which must be addressed, alongside the structural problems in classifying heat-related deaths. For example, medical doctors must be trained across the country to diagnose the impact of extreme heat on the body, as Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a fellow at Sustainable Futures Collaborative, points out.

Hospitals must be equipped to deal with heat-related illnesses. Currently, many hospitals in places reeling under extreme heat do not even have enough thermometers to check temperatures of patients with heat strokes, as recent ground reports have pointed out.

Then, one needs to factor in deaths that take place outside the hospital. One way to deal with the situation is to track all-cause mortality during stretches of heatwaves with available data from the past to understand the excess mortality that may have been contributed by intense heat, as Pillai and other scholars suggest. This was done in the case of the May 2010 heat wave in Ahmedabad, which revealed 1,344 excess deaths and led to India’s first heat action plan (HAP) in 2013. Since then, many Indian states and cities have come up with their own HAPs. But HAPs are quite often under-funded and not enforced.

In the short term, inevitably, whoever can afford will rush to buy an air- conditioner or an air cooler depending on the terrain, just to survive, or fall very sick. This will only add to the problem, especially in congested cities where the “urban heat island” effect plays out. “Urban heat islands" occur when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.

Extreme heat can destroy human lives and a country’s aspirations.

“Because of its large population, India is in absolute terms expected to lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs in 2030 because of heat stress. Although most of the impact in India will be felt in the agricultural sector, more and more working hours are expected to be lost in the construction sector, where heat stress affects both male and female workers,” noted a 2019 International Labour Organisation report.

There are plenty of forecasts about the impact of extreme heat on the Indian economy but what is also required, says Pillai, is the granular, hyper-local picture which includes local scientific assessment of heat, localised research which tells you what heat is doing to a specific area in every way. This also means awareness about extreme heat must percolate down to the local administration.

Vulnerability assessments must not only factor in terrain or geography but also the sectors, occupations, and population groups most affected by extreme heat, adds Pillai.

India’s heat strategy must tackle core issues like how India’s cities are designed, how much greenery is maintained, how society is organised.

Who lives, who dies and who falls sick will depend greatly on who has access to regular supply of electricity, to cooling devices and clean water in the coming years. These aren’t abstract issues any more.


Tags: climate change, india heatwave, heatwave impact