Loss of wages, faltering health and dip in productivity — rural workforce faces the brunt of the heat waves
The heat wave conditions are wreaking havoc in rural India. With no choice but to tend to their crops in the blistering heat, farm labourers are having a hard time of it. Experts say that these troubled times are here to stay. A ground report from Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh.
Aishwarya Tripathi and Pratyaksh Srivastava 21 April 2023 4:38 PM GMT
Lamora (Mahoba) and Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh
On a blinding summer afternoon, Ganga Charan Raikwar walked towards a tree for some respite from the scorching heat, and for a drink of water. The 17-year-old batai kisaan, a sharecropping farmer from Lamora village, gulped down the water from a plastic pipe in the field, wiped the sweat off his face with a crumpled gamcha and dragged himself back to tend to the two bighas (half a hectare) of land.
He rejoined his 16-year-old brother Mohit Raikwar and their 40-year-old mother Harikunwar Raikwar who were busy sowing the mentha (peppermint) crop in the prevailing heatwave conditions.
Being a sharecropper, the Raikwars knew the quality and the quantity of the mentha would decide how much money they would make, as the harvest would be equally divided between the landlord and Raikwars. Any delay or carelessness on their part could lead to losses that they could ill afford. There was no question of sitting in the shade because of the heat.
“The hot water makes me feel sick. I have to stand in the dhoop the whole day with just an hour’s break for lunch,” Ganga Charan, whose village is located in Mahoba district, in Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh, told Gaon Connection.
Bundelkhand is one of the most parched regions in the country with temperatures soaring upwards of 45 degrees C in peak summers and causing frequent droughts. And the people in the area, be they agriculturists or daily wage labourers are wilting in the unrelenting heat. But, they have no choice but to carry on working. No work means no food on the table.
Also Read: Feeling The Heat
It is only April and already, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), East Uttar Pradesh (where Mahoba is located) has been witnessing heat waves. Many other parts of the country are close on its heels with schools in some states shut down due to the unprecedented heat. IMD has been issuing heatwave alerts and warning people to stay indoors.
But all these warnings and statistics mean nothing to Bhuri Devi who has to daily sit in front of a wok of bubbling oil and laddle out samosas in Supa village, in Mahoba. She keeps a two-litre plastic bottle of water by her side to quench her thirst.
Bhuri Devi said that she fries samosas for two hours every day in order to make ends meet. At around 2 pm, with mercury hovering around 40 degree Celsius, she and her sister-in-law Bineeta had gone to collect firewood for the chulah (mud oven) over which the samosas have to be fried, she said.
“We walked four kilometres in heat to find and chop the firewood,” Bineeta told Gaon Connection as she held up the axe. “If we don’t do this, how will the chulha burn, ” she asked.
Also Read: Same story, different year: High February temperatures haunt wheat farmers for 2nd consecutive year
The threat of the rising heat hitting the livelihoods is real. A 2019 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) — Working on a Warmer Planet - The Impact of Heat Stress on Labour Productivity and Decent Work — warns that India is expected to lose 5.8 per cent of working hours in 2030 due to heat stress. Because of its large population, in absolute terms, the country is expected to lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs in 2030 due to heat stress.
This is not all. Another 2022 report by the World Bank warns that by 2030, over 160-200 million people across India could be exposed to lethal heat waves annually.
Studies point out that India has witnessed a 55 per cent rise in deaths due to extreme heat between 2000-2004 and 2017-2021. Exposure to heat also caused a loss of 167.2 billion potential labour hours among Indians in 2021, resulting in loss of incomes equivalent to about 5.4 per cent of the country's GDP.
“Earlier, the peak agricultural activity which usually involves sowing and harvesting of the crops was designated for that time of the year when the weather is not oppressive but now early heat waves have severely disturbed the schedule of agriculture. This trend is here to stay and states will have to formulate policies to provide respite to the farmers,” Mahesh Palawat, vice president of climate change and meteorology at Skymet Weather, a private weather forecasting agency, told Gaon Connection.
Also Read: Peppermint farmers in UP lose their cool as the rising heat brings more pests that threaten the cash crop
As per the latest weather bulletin issued by the IMD today, (April 21 at 1:30 pm), yesterday’s, maximum temperatures ranged between 40-44°C in many parts of East India and East Uttar Pradesh; in some parts of Central India, interior Maharashtra and Rayalaseema; 35-40°C of rest of the parts of the country except over Western Himalayan Region (12-25°C).
According to Palawat, along with the rising temperature, the change in rainfall pattern will also change the agricultural map in India.
“Regions that have been known for bountiful harvest like the northwest parts of the country such as Punjab and Haryana will record a dip in production while states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will register a spike in production,” he said.
Chandra Bhushan, the chief executive officer of Delhi-based International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST), told Gaon Connection that the rural residents are bearing the brunt of the heatwave season in the last few years. According to him, traditional wisdom which so far insulated the rural population from adverse weather conditions had become redundant with changing climatic conditions.
“The Indian farming community’s practice of following traditional wisdom in agriculture that has held it in good stead all these years, no longer works. With the changing climate, the schedule, the techniques, the modus operandi, everything will have to be realigned to suit the changing climate,” Bhushan told Gaon Connection.
“Also Read: A cold wave, a heat wave followed by hailstorms — all in the space of a few weeks destroy cumin crop in Rajasthan
Not too far from where the Raiwakars were planting peppermint in the two bigha farmland, was the makeshift hut of 62-year-old Somvati Sulleri. She had hung up some of her colourful sarees in the hope they would cool down the interiors of the hut, where she rests while watching over her fields. A day before, she sat in the partially open hut, watching the solar panels on her family’s fields.
“I felt nauseous, dizzy and just felt like lying down. I reached home, poured buckets of water over my head to cool myself down and applied thanda tel [cool oil] on my head. Eventually, I had to take some medicine to feel better,” Somwati told Gaon Connection.
The heat makes 27-year-old Ram Dayal Kushwaha feel sick too. But there is little he can do, he said. “The heat is unbearable. This time I have not been able to work for more than 20 days in the month. There are times when I feel sick but still show up because my house runs on my daily wage,” Kushwaha, a mason from Lamora village, told Gaon Connection while he was laying bricks to construct a wall. Kushwaha will earn Rs 600 for spending all day balanced precariously on a ladder in the unforgiving heat.
Abinash Mohanty, who is an expert reviewer of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ’s sixth assessment report, said that government intervention was the urgent need of the hour.
“The heat wave crisis is not merely a meteorological phenomenon but also a socio-economic challenge which needs the State to intervene and subsidise cooling solutions which are now becoming an existential question for the rural population which includes more than 60 per cent of the Indian population,” Mohanty, the sector head, Climate Change and Sustainability at Delhi-based IPE-Global — an international development organisation, told Gaon Connection.
“The first measure should involve the mapping of the evolving heat wave landscape in the country which should be followed by planning on a micro level considering the sectors which witness intense heat waves. The third measure will have to be equitable distribution of cooling solutions in the form of low cost appliances. The state support will have to be crucial,” Mohanty pointed out.
The heat wave situation in India is comparable to inhospitable conditions in the developed parts of the world such as western Europe and the Scandinavian countries where the state supports central heating in the households without which it would become impossible to inhabit those countries in the harsh winters, he said.
“While the socio-economic conditions in these countries cannot be compared to India’s, state support is much needed here,” he said.