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The cascading effect of the heatwave, in charts

Heatwaves started hitting India in March. Besides denting wheat production, they have caused power shortages and taken a human toll in terms of productivity loss, illnesses and deaths. (HT_PRINT)Premium
Heatwaves started hitting India in March. Besides denting wheat production, they have caused power shortages and taken a human toll in terms of productivity loss, illnesses and deaths. (HT_PRINT)

  • Heatwaves in India have been spreading to more states and have been staying longer. And this year, besides exacting a human toll, heatwaves are posing tricky questions in wheat and power sufficiency

This April, India exported 1.4 million tonnes of wheat, nearly six times what it did in April 2021. Wheat exports were expected to cross 10 million tonnes in 2022, and help narrow a global shortage of foodgrains created by the war between Russia and Ukraine, two major wheat producers. However, India has now banned wheat exports as severe heat waves have hurt production.

Heatwaves started hitting India in March. Besides denting wheat production, they have caused power shortages and taken a human toll in terms of productivity loss, illnesses and deaths. The year has given us the hottest March in 122 years since the India Meteorological Department (IMD) started maintaining records. April was the hottest-ever for northwest India and the fourth hottest for India as a whole. High temperatures in northwest India are expected to continue till the monsoon cools it down in May and June.

The IMD defines a heatwave as temperatures above 40°C for plains, 37°C for coastal regions and 30°C for hills, or 5-6°C above normal temperatures.

Heatwaves are part of a bigger trend. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, both their spread (number of states) and duration (number of heatwave days) have been consistently increasing in India. The average number of heatwaves per year has gone up from 9.9 in 1980-1999 to 23.6 in 2000-2019, according to a study. Along with other extreme weather events, these changes have raised concerns about the impact of global warming.

Wheat dynamics

India's ban on wheat exports is one example of tough choices forced by heatwaves. Disrupted supply from Russia and Ukraine, which together account for a quarter of global wheat exports, could trigger a malnutrition crisis among millions facing other emergencies, warns Unicef. Although India's historical share in global wheat exports is low, it could have helped this year.

Domestically, India's food inflation jumped to 8.4% in April, even as the broader retail inflation touched 7.8%, an eight-year high. Heatwaves have hit wheat-producing states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh hard, potentially lowering yields by 15-20%. Quality has also diminished. While India has sufficient food stock, a combination of higher exports, high food inflation and lower yields could cause a shortage.

In February, the government said it would procure 40 million metric tonnes (mmt) of wheat this season, higher than last year. But procurement, as of 10 May, was only 17.8 mmt—nearly half of last year at this point.

Power shortages

Unlike wheat production, which had been doing well till heatwaves came along, power generation has been facing difficulties for several months now, and the heatwave worsened the problem. Peak power demand exceeded 200,000 MW in March and April, and peak shortage was among the highest levels in the last 16 months.

The largest deficit in these 16 months was in October 2021, when India’s coal inventories for thermal power depleted to four days, against the prescribed 25 days. The current heatwave is again squeezing coal inventories held by power plants. In mid-April, 105 of the 173 power plants had less than 25% of the required inventory, according to the Central Electricity Authority. Coal accounts for over 70% of India's power generation. The Railways had to cancel over 650 passenger trains to clear tracks for more cargo trains, the main mode of transporting coals to power plants.

Human cost

Heatwaves impair productivity. According to the International Labour Organization, India lost 3.6% of daylight working hours in 2015 due to high temperatures. India could lose $250 billion by 2030, or 4.5% of GDP, to work hours lost to heatwaves, says a 2020 report by consulting firm McKinsey. High temperatures are especially hard on the poor, many of whom work in the open. Agriculture accounts for over 60% of employment. Similarly, the construction sector, the other major employer, involves predominantly outdoor work.

According to EnviStats, over 10,000 people in India died due to heatwaves between 2000 and 2020. This may well be an under-count, as India attributes deaths to heatwave only if it is medically certified as having been caused by direct exposure to the sun. India's response to heatwaves has been improving with states drawing heat-action plans and early warning systems. But this year shows heatwaves are getting worse.

(howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data)

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