An unprecedented heatwave is turning cities into death traps for outdoor workers
Good morning! A big hello to readers who signed up this week. Welcome to The Intersection, The Signal's weekend edition. This weekend we look into why India's scorching heatwave is an ominous sign of things to come, one that will seriously harm India's workers. India is looking to cope with hot spells with Heat Action Plans. Also in today’s edition: we have picked the best weekend reads for you.
Everyday N puts up his little stall in a Gurugram bazaar, he battles against the heat. And every year, he feels the heat getting more oppressive. N, 35, a migrant from Bihar’s Madhubani district, has sold garments in the open air bazaar or mandi in Gurugram’s Ghata village for nearly 10 years. His wife is a domestic worker. Both are reeling under the impact of the heatwaves scorching not just Gurugram and the rest of the National Capital Region (NCR), but huge swathes of India. Though N has managed, if barely, to stay on his feet for eight to 10 hours daily, he has next to no customers. “I have to work, or else I can’t feed my children,” he says. “But who will step out to buy clothes in this heat?”
N's sales would average ₹4,000 to ₹5000 a day. This wasn't a constant, but allowed him and his wife to cover the cost of buying garments, ferrying them from Delhi, and paying for stall maintenance. The heatwave has dwindled N’s daily sales to ₹1,500 and even ₹500 while the cost of upkeep remains the same.
March 2022 was recorded as the country’s hottest in 122 years, and April was the third-hottest, after temperatures recorded in 2010 and 2016. The heat that hit India earlier this month was a result of higher global temperatures caused by human activity, according to Imperial College London researchers, Mariam Zachariah and Friederike Otto. In a statement released on April 26, Zachariah said: “Before human activities increased global temperatures, we would have seen the heat that hit India earlier this month around once in 50 years. But now it is a much more common event. We can expect such high temperatures about once every four years.”
The heatwaves are far from over for the year. On May 5, the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) forecast that heatwaves will return, and that rain showers over the NCR on May 4 were a temporary relief. From May 7, the heatwave could see a resurgence over northwest India. Central India will be affected from May 8.
Plan of action
Gurugram, N’s home for a decade, is a mish-mash of old mandis and towering glass buildings that jut out almost unexpectedly in its skyline. Most offices and residential complexes that came up during its boom time were built in a way that worries Kamal Kishore, the Member Secretary of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
“We’ve built like we’re living in Europe. Our buildings are all glass and fitted with ACs to keep them cool,” he says.
“Do the rich think they’ll be able to escape the heat islands being created in cities? Take a walk down Khan Market’s middle lane; the temperatures are much higher because of all the ACs.”
The Khan Market effect Kishore refers to is, in fact, a global problem. The very appliance that offers respite from blistering heat is an ouroboros: ACs cool the indoors by funnelling heat outdoors. As long as eight years ago, Arizona State University researchers found that this released heat can increase mean nighttime temperatures by as much as 1°C-1.5°C. And yet, we’d be reeling without ACs. This year is particularly grim not only because the heatwave-induced cooling demand has surfaced during a power crisis, but because supply disruptions have led to an appliance shortage. As if ACs weren’t both indispensable and problematic already, they will now become more expensive.
(See this thread to know the anatomy of a manufactured power crisis.)
Couple this burgeoning demand with the spread of concrete and glass structures, whose immediate radiuses heat up more than greener areas in cities. The result is a heat island effect. This quintessentially-urban problem exacerbates heatwaves. As heat days increase in severity and frequency, cities will need to be planned and built differently to adapt to this grim future, Kishore points out.
On May 5, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting with the NDMA and IMD to review how prepared the country is for heatwaves, and directed that Heat Action Plans (HAPs) be implemented. These are state policy documents to respond to heatwaves and plan long-term measures.
The HAP was borne of a tragedy. In 2010, 4,462 people in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, succumbed to scorching temperatures—nearly 47°C—that claimed 1,344 more lives than the previous year. This event catalysed Ahmedabad’s HAP in 2013, the first of its kind in South Asia. The NDMA subsequently recognised heatwaves as a national disaster and formulated guidelines on a national level. The Indian government is now working with over 100 cities and districts across 23 states to implement HAPs (pdf).
HAPs ask for a robust prediction and warning system, with categories of alerts such as yellow and orange to denote heat severity. They call for preparing medical facilities for heat-related illness, as Ahmedabad's hospitals have done, and long-term measures of greening urban spaces, installing ‘cool roofs’ in buildings—seen in Delhi’s government buildings—and making water easily accessible, which the Delhi Jal Board is trying to implement. State plans, such as in Haryana, have reduced school hours to protect children. Some state measures also call for changing work hours of ‘outdoor workers’ to early morning ones to avoid being outside from 11 am to 5 pm.
Ahmedabad’s heat alert flow. Source: Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, 2019 update (pdf)
Some states and cities are doing better than others, says Polash Mukherjee of the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), which works with government authorities to strategise heat resilience measures. According to the NRDC’s April 2022 brief, “HAPs are essential to protect communities and save lives from extreme heat.” Mukherjee says that Surat and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, Odisha and Bihar have been proactive in creating and implementing heat resilience measures. Bihar, taking into account its rural population, had conversations about how to preserve its ground water table. Gurugram has also “stepped up” in recent years, he adds.
Easier said than done
Kamal Kishore says the NDMA is in conversations with some of the 200-odd high risk districts about HAPs. He gave examples of Barmer (Rajasthan), Jhansi and Gorakhpur (UP), and Rajkot (Gujarat), from where he had received “encouraging responses”. But like Mukherjee and other policy experts, Kishore admits they cannot personally see what is happening in each district. The NDMA can act as an advisory body, but implementation is a state responsibility.
Dileep Mavalankar, director of the Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, criticises the state and Centre’s lack of manpower to oversee plans. For instance, there is no dedicated officer for heat. IIPH has pioneered some of the research on heat in the country and works closely with government bodies on the issue.
“A heat stroke is just the tip of the iceberg,” Mavalankar says. “We need to study daily deaths, number of ambulance calls, fire incidents and even animal deaths”. All these, according to him, represent the true effects of heat waves. NRDC’s Polash Mukherjee adds that cities have no audit structure to judge performance. Response towards the informal sector has also been limited.
Questions over implementation aside, there’s a deeper issue with the HAP itself, as detailed by Maryam Nastar. Nastar is a researcher with the Centre For Sustainability Studies in Lund University, Sweden. In her assessment from 2020, she noted that HAPs adopt policies using limited data. Take the Ahmedabad HAP’s much-touted claim of preventing over 1,000 deaths each year; this estimate does not indicate whose lives were saved. This is important because outdoor workers, disadvantaged groups, children, pregnant women, chronic disease patients, and the elderly are most vulnerable to heat stress. Nastar also notes that unmeasured factors (air pollution, general public awareness about global heatwaves) can play a role in heat avoidance.
Census data on slums—a bedrock for outlining heat relief measures for disadvantaged people—does not take into account chawl dwellers and others who live in poor conditions outside demarcated ‘slum areas’. Recommendations to increase green cover have had little impact on urban planning. Vulnerable groups also do not have access to consistent water supply and electricity, which are critical for managing heat stress. Factor in the delayed 2021 Census, and we are staring at knowledge gaps that will dictate state HAPs.
Which is why for workers like N in Gurugram, and his counterparts Abbas and Nizam in Mumbai, policy measures are abstract notions. Over phone calls, each man individually asked this reporter how he could possibly stop working at any point of the day.
Abbas, a 35-year-old migrant from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, is a loader at Mumbai’s Tilak Nagar naka, near Kurla. He earns ₹500 to ₹700 on the days he does get work. He and Nizam—also from Balrampur—do the same work every day: load cargo onto vehicles, travel with the vehicles, unload and then come back to their naka. It's heavy work, says Abbas. Moreover, like many migrants, Abbas and Nizam send money to their families back home. Everyday’s wage counts, and they cannot afford to miss being at the naka despite the heatwave, especially during Ramzan. Nizam sent back ₹5,000 in April; he couldn’t afford to buy his children good clothes for Eid.
“Sometimes contractors give us food and water, sometimes they don’t. At night we go back to our rooms, and those are also hot. But tell me, how can a poor man like me stop working?” Nizam asks.
Abbas and N in Gurugram were more forthcoming about the effects of heat on their bodies. While neither admitted to being personally ill, they’ve seen workers throw up or get upset stomachs. They’ve seen them faint. Everyone they know has a constant headache. These are all signs of heat-stressed bodies, which make heavy lifting more dangerous.
Heat adds to the physical stress these jobs already create, explains occupational safety and health expert Vinod Sant. Sant was director general of the National Safety Council in Mumbai and is now associated with the International Labour Organisation.
“Heat stress is a group of hazards on the body, of which heat stroke is most severe. Others are headaches, rashes, fatigue and burns,” he says. Outdoor workers continue to do hazardous work with no health and safety protections. While construction workers are protected to some degree under the BOCW Act, contractors have to ensure their own safety. That said, it is not possible to monitor each contractor. Also consider that vendors like N exist outside the employee-employer relationship. Technically self-employed, they have to look after themselves even without the resources to do so.
Civil society organisations are privy to the ailments workers are wont to admit to. Bhakti Vardam, an outreach and research executive with Aajeevika—a Mumbai-based organisation that works with migrant labourers—says she’s seen workers suffer from many of these symptoms. They often douse themselves in talcum powder in the morning to avoid excessive sweating.
“They’re resigned to it, which is why they don’t talk about these discomforts. They see them as weaknesses,” Bhakti shares. When there is a younger, stronger worker competing for the same job at their nakas, these men cannot afford to admit any weaknesses.
The labour pool is so vast that if one of them takes a few days off, contractors will find someone else. So the work doesn’t stop. This makes them most vulnerable to heatwaves. The recent IPCC report, while warning of heat stress in South Asia, mentioned that outdoor workers will face almost 250 “clinically stressed” days a year by the end of the 21st century.
Bhakti’s views were echoed by Elizabeth Khumallambam of Gurugram-based Community for Social Change and Development. These aren’t people who can afford to stop looking for jobs, she points out. However, their capacity for work stands diminished. Bhakti calculated that the workers who could work for 25 to 30 days a month in other seasons were only able to function two to three days a week during summer.
Kishore of NDMA admits that he’s seeing cascading impacts on workers, resulting in slowed down work. You may notice that waste collection hasn’t happened regularly. Domestic workers may no longer turn up regularly at your home. Traffic policemen are also at risk.
“It's a tough challenge, but along with better buildings, urban planning must take into account a city’s green spaces. If heat days double or triple in the future, short term warnings won’t help us,” Kishore warns.
Clarification: The story has been updated to highlight N’s daily sales. It had erroneously stated his earnings earlier.
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