Indias Extreme Temperatures: No Country For Outdoor Workers

India's Extreme Temperatures: No Country For Outdoor Workers

India’s extreme summer heat has arrived earlier for the third year in a row, with over 200 deaths recently. The India Meteorological Department predicts an unusually high number of heatwave days from April to June. As climate change escalates, the frequency, duration, and intensity of heatwaves increase, threatening the lives of more than a billion people.

The scorching summer heat has arrived in India earlier than usual for the third consecutive year, making it a concerning trend. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has forecasted unusually high heatwave days from April to June. In the past few days alone, over 200 people, including dozens of election workers, have died as the country continues to reel from the cascading impacts of relentless heat.

As climate change escalates, these severe heat waves increase in frequency, duration, and intensity. Scientists caution that this trend threatens the lives of more than a billion people. Alarmingly, reports suggest that by the end of the century, catastrophic heatwaves triggered by climate change could render parts of South Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, uninhabitable, potentially displacing millions.

In India, a heatwave is defined by temperatures exceeding 40°C in low-lying areas or 30°C in mountainous regions. New Delhi recently recorded its highest temperature—52.3 degrees Celsius, exemplifying the extreme weather conditions in India.

Amidst this, the worst affected are those who work outdoors—a significant portion of the Indian population, including farmers and construction workers. For many, taking a break from work during these periods is an unaffordable luxury.

A*, a 45-year-old e-rickshaw driver from West Bengal now living in southeast Delhi, shared his struggles: “We, along with other e-rickshaw drivers, often get sick, sometimes with severe headaches. I keep a plastic water bottle, but the water is almost boiling. I am out all day in this heat, but I have no other option. I cannot take a day off because I have a family to support.”

He continued, “Business has also declined. Fewer people are outside; no one is stepping out during the day in this heat. This concerns me even more than my health, as I worry about earning enough to provide for my family.”

According to an analysis by the Hindustan Times, 18% of India's non-farm workforce works outdoors. When agricultural workers are included, the proportion of outdoor workers rises to 49.4%. This means that, regardless of the temperature, nearly half of all Indian workers must work outside. In total, this equates to approximately 231.5 million outdoor workers.

In India, informal outdoor workers are systematically subjected to low incomes and the harshest work conditions, leading many to live hand-to-mouth or without the option of paid leave, even when extreme heat makes them ill. This makes them one of the most vulnerable groups affected by the deadly heatwaves.

S*, a 60-year-old bag seller from Uttar Pradesh, spends his days in the Batla House area of Delhi, trying to make a living for his family. With several bags hanging from his hands, broken plastic slippers on his feet, and a cloth on his head, he endures the severe heat that has taken a toll on his health.

"I have started coming a little later in the evening, greatly affecting my earnings. But I am old and often fall sick. The heat is too much for me," he said, his voice tinged with fatigue.

"But I am out here because I depend on the day’s earnings," he added, emphasising his reliance on daily income to support his family.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) stated that India will see a reduction of about 5.8% in overall labour hours by 2030 due to increasing heat and humidity. This decline poses significant challenges, especially since around 90% of India's workforce is in the informal sector, with many engaged in physically demanding jobs.

Meena Devi, a 32-year-old vendor, sells oxidised jewellery outside Sarojini Nagar market. Her 5-year-old son sits beside her as she tries to make sales from morning until evening. "If I could, I wouldn't be sitting out here. Even the shade does nothing. Sometimes, I wet a cloth and put it on my head, but it still feels like it's burning," she said, her face reflecting the strain of the relentless heat.

"It's difficult for me to continue, but I must work for my family, especially my son. It feels like I've never experienced this kind of heat before. I often get headaches because of it," she added, underscoring the physical toll her work takes on her.

Apart from facing economic consequences, heat waves profoundly affect the health of outdoor workers. According to a study, workers exposed to outdoor conditions endure heightened and extended exposure to UV radiation, elevating the likelihood of negative impacts on their eyes, potential skin cancer development, and a possible compromise in immune function. Moreover, increased temperatures coupled with frequent and prolonged exposure amplify the risk of heat stress, potentially resulting in various heat-related illnesses like heat stroke, exhaustion, heightened vulnerability to chemical exposure, and fatigue.

When we mention heatwaves and their effects, it becomes imperative to speak about the cause.

One may easily attribute the occurrence and increase in frequency and average temperature recorded during heat waves to global warming, which is more of an 'umbrella' term encompassing several other factors resulting in increased temperature.

Factors include rampant and unplanned construction, deforestation, an increased number of factories for manufacturing, and improvement of transport infrastructure. As jungles and mangroves make way for "progress", cities lose their green cover, resulting in reduced rainfall and higher temperatures.

The other significant factor is greenhouse gas emissions. As the no. of vehicles on the road grows, so does the emission of carbon dioxide. With a lack of trees in urban areas, carbon dioxide and other toxic gases are slowly turning our cities into one big oven.

As rising temperatures persist worldwide, outdoor labourers performing physically demanding tasks find themselves on the frontlines, facing heightened risks from heat stress. This includes agricultural labourers, construction workers, gig economy workers, autorickshaw drivers, and street vendors, who bear the full impact of this exposure. Their occupations demand resilience in challenging environments and frequently offer limited financial alternatives, rendering them particularly susceptible to the detrimental consequences of extreme heat.

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