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The threat of extreme weather to health, productivity and livelihoods of outdoor

People sleep in the shade of an overbridge in New Delhi. Many parts of the country faced extreme heat wave conditions in May. (Photo: AP)Premium
People sleep in the shade of an overbridge in New Delhi. Many parts of the country faced extreme heat wave conditions in May. (Photo: AP)

  • How extreme temperatures threaten health, productivity and livelihoods of India’s outdoor workforce
  • Several states have put in place heat action plans to protect workers. But that is unlikely to be wholly effective in the absence of long-term measures and coordinated action.

GUWAHATI/NEW DELHI : Vimal Sahu had seen enough Delhi summers to tell that it was not just another hot May day. In Wazirabad, Delhi, where she ran a small joint providing breakfast, lunch and dinner to migrant labourers, the temperatures had climbed to 49 degrees Celsius.

It didn’t help that her workplace was on the burning pavement. She had wrapped a plastic sheet on the roof to keep it cool, but—from the street to the concrete buildings around her—everything was giving off waves of white heat.

“Even the drinking water was steaming hot, like food fresh from the stove. I couldn’t serve it to customers," she said. So, she ended up spending 100-200 a day to buy slabs of ice. “I barely earn 10,000-12,000 a month and this only cuts into my savings," she said. Sahu’s day is usually 17-hour long, as she cooks, cleans and manages accounts, besides serving customers. The blistering heat last month left her body with a rash and extreme exhaustion. Her four-year-old son had collapsed in school because of the heat. There were too many things to handle for the woman in her 30s, from a small town in Jharkhand, to be able to stop working.

Nearly 50km away, in Sector 52, Gurgaon, Puja Maity, a cook, also decided to cut short her work-days by half and return home by afternoon. Even the short walk from her home to the apartment complexes she worked in left her slumped and drained of energy. “I will end up earning much less this month, but I cannot help it," she said.

The severe heat waves in north India this summer is a grim sign of things to come. It’s not uncommon for temperatures to shoot through the forties in May or June, but the heat became too intense early on in north and central India, with the highest March temperatures in 122 years. Parts of India saw the hottest April in over a 100 years. An analysis by the UK Met office warned that climate change will lead to such record-breaking temperatures about every three years. In the absence of global warming, such heat spikes would have come once in 300 years. According to Roxy Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, extreme weather events such as an increase in heat waves, frequent cyclones and the three-fold rise in extreme rains can be traced to the 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures.

Too hot to work

For outdoor workers in India’s hottest regions, rising extreme heat will make work increasingly difficult, several studies have warned, shaving off billion hours of labour and productivity.

In January, researchers at Duke University estimated that India lost around 259 billion hours of labour annually between 2001 and 2020 due to the impact of humid heat. A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2019—‘Working on a Warmer Planet: The Impact of Heat Stress on Labour Productivity and Decent Work’—estimated that India might lose 5.8 % of working hours in 2030 as a result of heat stress, amounting to national-level GDP losses of around 5%.

Climate scientists predict that parts of India will be exposed to heat and humidity too extreme for the human body to bear as the planet warms. That not only means mortal risk for vulnerable populations, but also conditions in which the capacity for outdoor work will fall rapidly.

A 2014 study of heat stress on productivity of brick-kiln workers in West Bengal, for example, showed that “an increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius causes approximately a 2 % loss in productivity", and symptoms of cardiac strain and elevated heart rate in workers.

This has grim implications for India, as our economy is highly dependent on people engaged in outdoor occupations. A McKinsey report of 2020 estimates that heat-exposed work produces about 50 % of India’s GDP and drives about 30% of GDP growth (based on 2017 figures) – and that heat waves will lead to a “approximately 2.5-4.5%, or $150-250 billion" risk to the GDP.

“According to 2017-18 unit level Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data, there were roughly 205 million agricultural workers in India. To this, one can add construction workers, policewomen/men and security workers, sanitation workers, and street vendors amounting to approximately another 50 million workers. There may be some double counting of seasonal migrant workers, or MNREGA workers, but by-and-large it is safe to say that about half of our workforce is exposed to heat or other harsh climatic conditions," said Sabina Dewan, president and executive director, JustJobs Network.

A bulk of outdoor workers is also in the informal sector, without access to any workplace protection measures. This summer, for example, landfills across Delhi burst into pockets of fire in the stifling heat. The acrid smoke burnt Rek Sona’s eyes and throats as she collected scrap such as plastic bottles and other recyclables from the mountain-high garbage dump in Ghazipur, east Delhi. The 18-year-old migrated from West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas around five years ago. She earns 7,000-9,000 a month from selling scrap, and is one of the 4 million waste-pickers in India.

Last month, she said she saw two waste-pickers lying beside the sprawling trash heap. “Whenever I see anyone tumble and fall in this heat, I rush home and fetch water. I splash it on them till the person gains consciousness," she says. For workers like her toiling under the sun, there are no emergency responders.

Dousing the fires

In 2010, over 1,000 people were estimated to have died in Ahmedabad, as a heat wave pushed temperatures up to 46.8 degrees Celsius. In response, the city’s municipal authorities tied up with scientists and other stakeholders to frame India’s first heat action plan in 2013.

Besides an early warning system and regular temperature forecasts, hospital staff were organized and trained to detect early signs of heat stroke, identify vulnerable people and assist them. School days were reduced, water distributed across the city and white reflective paint applied to slum roofs to slash temperatures by up to 5 degrees Celsius.

“The city rations electricity and water supply before the onset of heat waves so that there are no power cuts, or lack of access to water. At some traffic signals, they put up green sheets to provide shade to cars," says Ketki Gadre, consultant with the Mahila Housing Trust, an Ahmedabad organization that works with vulnerable households to install low-or no-tech climate-proofing solutions.

“The primary objective of the plan was to ensure that lives are not lost due to exposure to heat extremes," says Polash Mukherjee of the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC), who worked with the National Disaster Management Authority in implementing the heat action plan in Ahmedabad. On that count, it delivered—with over 1,000 deaths averted a year after the plan kicked in.

In 2017, for example, Bhanuben Jadav, who works with the Mahila Housing Trust, approached the tailors in the city’s Rajiv Nagar slum, where she lived. As the heat was forcing them to shut shop frequently, leading to income losses, she suggested that they install cooling roofs made of coconut husk and paper waste. “Their business picked up even in the heat wave. And soon other residents followed," said Jadhav, who has helped several households in her slum to adapt to the warming city by convincing them to install solar-powered fans and cooling roofs.

For the past five years or more, various state governments have invested in elaborate “climate-proof" plans to protect people, businesses and critical infrastructure against heat extremes, with the NDMA coordinating a nation-wide response. In 2020, the Centre worked with 23 states and over 100 cities and districts to develop and implement heat action plans. Some experts believe that the plans have been better implemented in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha and Telangana.

The plans, reviewed regularly by NDMA, vary depending on the region. “Different cities have different thresholds for alerts. For coastal cities like Bhubaneswar, even a temperature threshold of 35 degrees or 38 degrees Celsius can be a cause of concern due to the high humidity," says Dileep Mavalankar, director at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Gandhinagar.

Coastal areas with comparatively lower temperatures are at the risk of deadly wet-bulb temperatures, which is a measure of both heat and humidity in the atmosphere. At wet-bulb temperatures above 34 degrees Celsius, the body loses its capacity to cool down by sweating. Exposure to such heat for long can prove to be fatal.

“But heat plans need to go beyond preventing mortality rates. We need to improve communication with targeted lower-income groups such as street vendors, whose source of communication is only word of mouth, not broadcast messages or media issued in response to heat alerts," says Mukherjee.

The blind spots

States have had a patchy record in implementing heat protection measures. For example, Delhi doesn’t have an exclusive heat action plan yet though it has seen several heat spikes this year. In 2018-19, Rohit Magotra, deputy director of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe), a New Delhi-based think-tank, was involved in devising a heat action plan for the state. It identified heat-zones within the city, analysed the impacts of heat stress on the lives and livelihood of vulnerable populations such as occupational workers, women and children, senior citizens in urban slums. It recommended an early warning system that would mine data from the Indian Meteorological Department to forecast heat wave events. But in the last two years, the Delhi government hasn’t taken any steps to implement it.

All such plans need to use data better, say experts. “Ahmedabad and Delhi lack climatological-led empirical evidence on metrics such as number of heat wave days and seasonal variability that can improve access to impact-oriented climate information, better understanding of sectoral impacts and promotion of climate resilience centric policies, actions and schemes," says Abinash Mohanty, programme lead in the risks and adaptation team at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water.

The current heat-wave action plans don’t have a clear focus on low-income household groups, especially women and children, he says.

The majority of the urban outdoor workforce has limited access to cooling systems, but find themselves increasingly trapped in “heat islands" not of their own making. For instance, as ACs cool affluent enclaves, the hot air is spat outside. Moreover, in dense, urban sprawls, dark, concrete surfaces—roads and buildings and other infrastructure—absorb solar radiation and emits it out. The surrounding air heats up, creating large bubbles of heat and humidity.

As cities lose their foliage and allow their water bodies to be taken over by reckless construction, it compounds the problem. “Greener areas have relatively a lower heat level. They offer natural projection against the sun. Even water bodies are beneficial in terms of heat management," says Mukherjee. Interventions such as planting trees and restoration of water bodies can help curb the urban heat-island effect. But such long-term measures are hard to implement.

There are limits to a city’s action plans, of course. At the bureaucracy level, there is no permanent staff enlisted to implement heat action plans. “Many government plans won’t work unless there is a top-level review, either from the chief minister or the PM. There is a need to have a separate climate change and health department within the local municipality, the district and the state governments," says Mavalankar.

The larger question of livelihoods remains, as extreme heat is likely to make India’s most common occupations—from farming to construction work—more perilous. How much can workers adapt? And do they have an option not to? Vimal Sahu, for instance, worked through the soaring May temperatures, despite fatigue. “I have no other way but to work round the clock to put my son through private school. I couldn’t study but I have to make sure my child will be educated," she said.

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