Polls, deaths, and loaded power lines: India’s summer misery deepens

Voters in constituencies spread across 19 of the 36 states and Union territories cast their votes amid dangerously high levels of heat stress. Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)
Voters in constituencies spread across 19 of the 36 states and Union territories cast their votes amid dangerously high levels of heat stress. Photographer: Prakash Singh/Bloomberg (Bloomberg)


  • In Delhi, Haryana and Odisha, an average Lok Sabha constituency faced 5-8 hours of dangerous levels of ‘heat stress’ in the roughly 12-hour voting window during the recently concluded election. As the heatwave continues, power demand is also on the rise.

Climate change is making heatwaves hotter and more intense all over the world. Over the past few decades, headlines about heatwaves and unprecedented temperatures have become more common in India, with 2024 breaking records already. While some parts of the country have already welcomed southwest monsoon rains, residents of northern states are eagerly awaiting the rains to bring respite from scorching temperatures.

The recent Lok Sabha election also drew much attention to the heatwave situation. Voters in constituencies spread across 19 of the 36 states and Union territories cast their votes amidst dangerously high levels of ‘heat stress’, according to a new analysis by Respirer Living Sciences, a climate tech startup. In each of the last three phases (20 May, 25 May and 1 June), more than 70% of the constituencies faced heat stress at some point during the voting hours.

Also read: How heat stress has increased in urban India this year

‘Heat stress’ refers to the situation when the heat index—a measure of the apparent temperature that takes into account both temperature and humidity—exceeds 41°C. Delhi, Haryana and Odisha faced the worst, with an average constituency in these states facing 5-8 hours of heat stress in the roughly 12-hour voting window. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and Jharkhand also experienced heat stress for 3-4 hours per constituency.

The heat index is similar to an experimental one launched by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) last year, and relies on a location’s air temperature and relative humidity from Open-Meteo.com’s open-source weather data, which is then used to calculate the hourly heat index using a methodology given by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also read: Lok Sabha poll: The mystery of the absent Indian voter in 2024, in charts

Heatwave havoc

IMD data shows that India is indeed in the midst of its longest heatwave periods. Fourteen of the 36 weather subdivisions recorded more than 15 heatwave days between 1 March and 9 June, and the spell continues. Barring the north-east, coastal Karnataka and Marathwada, the entire country has witnessed heatwave conditions this summer at some point. The northern and central belts were the worst hit.

A heatwave is officially declared if the maximum temperature or the departure from the normal exceeds a set limit in at least two weather stations in a meteorological subdivision for at least two consecutive days, with the declaration made on the second day. The highest number of heatwave days seen this summer until 9 June was recorded in Odisha (27), followed by West Rajasthan (23), Haryana (20), and West Uttar Pradesh (20). Even high-altitude areas were not spared with Jammu and Kashmir observing six heatwave days, Himachal Pradesh (12), and Uttarakhand (2).

Deadly summers

In recent parliamentary sessions, several lawmakers have brought to the attention grave concerns around climate change-related extreme events. The ministry of earth sciences reported ‘heatwaves’ in Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh as a ‘major natural disaster’ in 2023—the first such instance since 1990.

Exposure to heatwaves manifests into heat-related illnesses, commonly known as heatstroke. Data reported by the National Crime Records Bureau puts the number of heatstroke deaths per year at several hundreds. Data from the National Centre for Disease Control shows that heatstroke claimed at least 56 lives between March and May, with 46 of them in May alone, and with data for some states missing. Many more are suspected to have died of heat-related effects. Meanwhile, public information portal Factly recently observed several discrepancies in data on heatwave-related deaths in India reported by different wings of the government.

Also read: Can India keep up with the ebbs and flows of power demand?

Beat the heat

The year 2023 was India's second-warmest on record, closely trailing the record-breaking temperatures experienced in 2016, according to the IMD. The relentless heat also drives up electricity demand as people across the country turn to cooling appliances to find respite. Historically, June typically sees peak power demand during the summer season. This year, peak power demand had already touched at least a five-year high by early June—with the rest of the month to follow.

Also read: The unusual electricity trends of 2023, explained

While the pace of increase in power demand is expected for a developing nation such as India, the escalating deadly heatwaves also threaten to impact labour productivity, especially for those in the informal and non-skilled workforce engaged in outdoor work. Despite climate change gradually finding a place in parliamentary questions, substantial action to mitigate its effect has been lacking. As the 18th Lok Sabha convenes next week, Indians will hope for some discussions addressing the rising heat.

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