Feeling The Heat
The measure of rising heat in the country isn’t just colour coded heat stress maps or a bumper sale of air-conditioners. There is a human face to it and that face is often of a migrant worker, or a daily wage farm labourer. If you look closer, many of those faces belong to rural women.
Nidhi Jamwal 21 April 2023 1:56 PM GMT
As I waited for the elevator in the skyscraper where I live, a familiar voice said, “Namaste bhabhi. Kaise ho?”
I turned around, smiled and said, “Main acchi hun. Aur tum, Raju?”
I often spot Raju walking around our complex, located in the suburbs of Mumbai, with a bunch of keys in his hand. His job is to dust and wash cars regularly, a tough job considering the financial capital of the country is forever ‘under construction’ and it is near impossible to keep anything dust-free even inside homes let alone cars parked outside.
We both entered the elevator. Unlike the usual “Bhabhi, how are kids”, “when are you going to Delhi to meet your parents” this time Raju said, “It is unbearably hot. It is worse in the village. Bura haal hai wahan, bhabhi. Everyone is falling sick. No one can work.”
Raju who is from Bihar moved to Mumbai many years ago, like hundreds of thousand people (including me) who come to the city to make a living. I have had several conversations with Raju but this was the first time we both were bothered about the ongoing heatwave.
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Earlier that very morning, at 7 am, Sony, our cook, had walked into our home, immediately switched on the kitchen ceiling fan and complained, “Didi, it is so hot. We are unable to sleep the whole night. It is getting worse every year. It gets difficult to work through the day.” After a brief pause, she added: “At least in Mumbai we have power supply. Gaon main bijli bhi nahi hoti [long power cuts in the village].” Sony’s gaon is in West Bengal.
For the past couple of days, heatwaves have made news headlines. Interactive maps coloured in shades of deep red and dark maroon are splashed on our social media feeds exhibiting multiple locations across the country where the mercury has crossed 43-45 degree Celsius.
IMD (India Meteorological Department), our official weather forecasting agency, has been issuing alerts and warnings on the heatwave. Some states have shut down schools as a precaution. It is only April and the peak summer heat is yet to hit us. And the forecast for the southwest monsoon this year is none too promising either (with a possibility of ‘below normal’ rainfall), and that is still more than a month away.
Spare a thought for the people who are our labour workforce. Hundreds and thousands of Sonys and Rajus who work in cities have families back home in rural India. A majority of them work outdoors. (A quick reminder — 65 per cent of our total population still lives in rural India).
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Often, discussions over the soaring mercury and its impact, get stuck at debates over whether the temperature will rise 1.5 degree Celsius or 2 degree Celsius.
Or, there are ‘business stories’ on how consumer goods companies are making a clean sweep as the sale of air conditioners and water coolers go through the roof this summer. Their profits will no doubt rise as in the coming years temperatures will rise to new levels, eventually making our planet uninhabitable.
According to the World Bank, by 2037, the demand for cooling in India is likely to be eight times more than current levels. This means there will be a demand for a new air-conditioner every 15 seconds, leading to an expected rise of 435 per cent in annual greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades.
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We forget that the rising heat isn’t just about colour coded heat stress maps or AC sales graphs. There is a human face to the rising heat in the country and the suffering it is bringing about. And that face is often of a migrant worker in a city, or a daily wage farm labourer in rural India.
If you look closer, that face will be of a rural woman because the women bear the maximum brunt of heatwaves, be it by way of loss of farm labour employment, walking extra distances to fetch water or firewood, or ensuring the old and the children are fed and taken care of, while menfolk migrate to cities in search of work.
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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.
The worst sufferers are going to be farm labourers, construction workers and daily wage workers who work outdoors and live in crowded shanties. To them, a day’s loss of wages often translates into no food for the family that day. Rising heat is also expected to reduce agricultural productivity.
Majority of our discussion and planning around heatwaves is urban centric with focus on heat wave action plans for cities. Unsurprisingly, rural India remains in the dark.
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Since the so-called mainstream media rarely focuses on rural citizens, more so farm labourers and daily wage earners in villages, what happens to their livelihoods and health when heatwaves prolong and become more prominent, is no one’s concern, least of all the government and policy makers who attend COP (Conference of the Parties on climate change) meetings at scenic global locations to discuss ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ strategies.
Back home, the writing is on the wall. 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 amongst Indians in 2021, resulting in loss of incomes equivalent to about 5.4 per cent of the country's GDP.
The cost of the rising heat is alarming. Our labour workforce is paying for it already in terms of loss of wages, shrinking food budget and rising health costs. Sooner than later this could be you and me.
Nidhi Jamwal is Managing Editor, Gaon Connection. Views are personal.