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No shade, no water: The fatal flaws in India’s heat management

To protect street vendors and urban workers from the impact of rising heat, Indian cities need inclusive policies– from legally binding heat action plans, cooling centres to special funds and awareness drives



Selomi Garnaik




Amruta S. N.



A vendor sitting at temporary tapari, where she sells dry-fruits at Sunder Nagari, Delhi. Photo: Vinit Gupta


A 40-year-old woman labourer and a 60-year-old security guard succumbed to heatstroke at the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in New Delhi on June 17. This was not an isolated incident, but one of the few reported cases from the national capital, highlighting a broader crisis in the country. The heatwave has created hazardous and deadly working conditions for millions of workers, particularly those in outdoor roles like construction, street vending and waste management, among others. 


India has experienced a dramatic increase in extreme weather events. The country recorded extreme weather events on 318 of the 365 days in the year 2023, with all states and Union territories experiencing such events on at least one day. These extreme weather events resulted in 3,287 human deaths, 1.24 lakh animal deaths, and damage to 2.21 million hectares of crop area, State of Environment 2024 points out.


A recent report Heatwave Havoc: Investigating the Impact on Street Vendors by Greenpeace India and National Hawker Federation, Delhi, sheds light on how heat waves impact street vendors in the Indian capital, focusing on their health risks, livelihood challenges, and adaptation strategies. It shows how instances of heat-related illnesses, including irritability, dehydration, headache and sunburn have surged among street vendors.


Bittu (16), from Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh sells children's clothes at Sadar Bazaar, New Delhi. Photo: Vinit Gupta


Insights also draw a picture of deteriorating health of women street vendors revealing that 7 out of 8 have experienced high blood pressure and women in the middle age group have expressed concerns about delays in their menstrual cycles due to extreme heat. This trend is alarming as it not only jeopardizes their health but also diminishes their productivity and economic resilience.


Statistics from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) also reveal a rise in heat-related fatalities among workers, underscoring the urgent need for effective interventions. 


For instance, in Delhi alone, heatwave-related deaths among vulnerable populations, including informal workers, have increased by 30% over the past five years. These figures underscore a grim reality: the rising heat is not just an inconvenience but a deadly threat to those least equipped to mitigate its impact. Despite the evident threat, awareness among urban workers about measures to combat heatwaves remains alarmingly low. 


Courtesy: Wobbly Table



MULTIPLE MARGINALIZATIONS


It is essential to highlight how escalating ecological vulnerabilities and extreme weather events disproportionately impact India's workforce. According to the 2011 census, 51 million internal migrants make up about 10% of India's labor force. This influx has placed additional strain on urban infrastructure and services, particularly in informal settlements where many migrant workers reside. The lack of adequate housing, sanitation facilities, and healthcare exacerbates their vulnerability to heat-related illnesses and economic instability. 


The Heatwave Havoc report shows that an overwhelming majority of street vendors urgently require essential facilities in marketplaces. Specifically, 97.6% of street vendors demanding medical facilities, 95.9% lack proper washroom facilities and 91.5% do not have access to adequate drinking water. 


Courtesy: Wobbly Table


These deficiencies illustrate the urgent need for basic amenities to protect the health and well-being of urban workers. Informal workers, already marginalized by their precarious employment status, now face the added burden of adapting to urban heat islands—areas with significantly higher temperatures due to concrete structures and limited green spaces.


The report indicates that 80% of street vendors report a decline in customer footfall during heatwaves, with nearly half experiencing income loss due to extreme climatic conditions. The informal nature of their employment further limits their access to social protection schemes and healthcare services, leaving them exposed to exploitative labor practices and unsafe working conditions. 


The loss of labour hours due to heat stress has severe implications since approximately 90% of the country’s labour force is engaged in the unorganized sector, and most of this labour is employed in physically demanding occupations. The dual threat of low income and poor working and living conditions forces residents to endure seasonal cycles of displacement and reconstruction, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and vulnerability. 



Ram Naresh (L) and Bhavri Devi (R) work as daily wage labourers at Khaari Bawari in old Delhi.

Photos: Vinit Gupta


INADEQUATE RESPONSES 


Despite the gravity and extent of the disaster, it is astonishing that heatwaves are not currently classified as a notified disaster in our country. This omission has serious consequences, as it restricts access to sufficient funding for emergency response, relief, and rehabilitation efforts from both the National Disaster Response Fund and State Disaster Response Fund.


This leaves our disaster management agencies and governments ill-equipped to address the challenges posed by heatwaves. Even in cases where some states have declared heatwaves as localized disasters, the allocation of only 10% of funds from the State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF) is insufficient. 


Existing policies such as the Heatwave Action Plans– guidelines set by states, for increasing preparedness and lowering the adverse impacts of extreme heat through strategies to prepare for, address, and recover from heat waves– are close to fruitless without sufficient funding. Adequate financial support is essential to implement and sustain effective heat wave mitigation measures.


The government must allocate dedicated funds for heatwave management, prioritizing investments in heat-resilient infrastructure, early warning systems,  healthcare facilities, and community outreach programs. 


Courtesy: Wobbly Table


GOING FORWARD


Climate migration from rural to urban areas exacerbates existing inequalities, leading to overcrowding, inadequate housing, and heightened exposure to extreme weather events. Addressing these challenges requires concerted efforts from policymakers, employers, civil society organizations, and communities to implement holistic solutions that prioritize the well-being and resilience of urban workers.


Only through collective action and commitment to social justice can we ensure that no worker is left behind in the face of climate change's escalating impacts.


India can mitigate the adverse effects of rising temperatures and build a more equitable and sustainable future for all its urban residents by adopting proactive measures.


Heat Action Plans (HAPs) should be made legally binding through legislative action. Currently, the National Guidelines for Preparation of Action Plan for Prevention and Management of Heatwave are neither legally binding nor have they been implemented across all states and Union Territories. Additionally, there should be a central fund established by the Central Government to support the implementation of HAPs and other adaptive measures by states and union territories.


Kamla Devi, runs a small makeshift grocery shop at Sunder Nagri, Delhi. Photo: Vinit Gupta


It is also critical to introduce regulations and guidelines to protect workers from extreme heat, including mandatory breaks, access to shaded areas, proper sanitation facilities, and provision of adequate drinking water. Additionally, setting up eco-friendly community cooling centers can provide comfortable spaces for outdoor workers during extreme heat exposure, significantly reducing their risk of heat-related illnesses.


Simultaneously, expanding social protection programs to cover informal workers is essential. This includes health insurance and financial assistance during periods of unemployment, extreme weather events or illness. The government must provide subsidies, rations, and electricity to protect informal workers from having to work during peak heat conditions. These measures will help ensure that these workers are not forced to choose between their health and their livelihood.


Awareness campaigns, skill development programs, and participatory decision-making processes can significantly build community resilience. This includes conducting workshops to educate informal sector workers on heatwave preparedness and integrating them into city-wide emergency response plans. Building community resilience helps create a more informed and prepared population that can better handle extreme heat events.


A Loss and Damage Fund to compensate outdoor informal workers for work loss and out-of-pocket expenses during heat waves is essential.  Implementing this through policies such as a Universal Basic Income would help mitigate the economic impact on workers who are forced to miss work due to heat-related health issues, thereby promoting their overall well-being and economic stability. 


By collectively committing to these measures and prioritizing social justice, India can effectively combat the escalating impacts of climate change and ensure the well-being and resilience of its urban workforce.


(Amruta S.N. and Selomi Garnaik are climate justice campaigners with non-profit Greenpeace India. Vinit Gupta is an award winning Delhi-based artist, who works with the media of photography and videos.)

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