An important aspect of climate change that clearly affects many Asian and African countries more is that a very large part of their working population toils in open spaces. In a country like India where over two-thirds of the population is rural and a significant section of urban workers, like construction workers, also do much of their work in the open sun, there are serious worries regarding the impact of rising temperature and heat waves on these workers and farmers.
In the summer of 2015, the heat waves became more relentless in India and neighboring Pakistan. Nearly 2500 people died in India and 1100 in Pakistan due to intense heat exposure. Deeply worrying as these statistics are, those familiar with actual work conditions believe that this may well be an underestimate as many of the poorest people who die outside hospitals due to excessive heat, dehydration and related complications in the course of their work may not be covered in official records.
On a scorching afternoon I travelled in Bundelkhand region of Central India, known for its remorseless summer, speaking to workers toiling at rural employment guarantee scheme sites. Some of them appeared too weak to work in this heat, almost near to collapsing. Yet in almost equal heat, when I went to Ajmer district of Rajasthan, in western India closer to the desert, the employment scheme workers were coping much better. The reason—they had been able to negotiate their working hours. They came early in morning and left just as the sun started getting cruel. Then towards the evening they returned to complete the pending work.
Over the centuries villagers have devised ways of coping with the scorching summers. Farmers who cultivate their land are able to so this more effectively. They are their own masters and normally can choose to be selective about their working hours. Not so landless farm workers, who often have very little bargaining power and must follow the working hours decided by their employers. They are the most vulnerable, as access to even clean and cool drinking water cannot be assured at the work-site, which may be some distance away from the main habitation of the village.
Working in intense heat for long without water and nutrition can be extremely risky, particularly when the worker is already weak, and millions of workers face this prospect on daily basis. As heat increases, the coping mechanisms which served reasonably well in the past are proving to be inadequate, as even farmers who cultivate their own land are realizing. Many of them are also losing on yields and income, as weather is much more erratic than before. This means in effect that often the smaller among them must also join the landless in travelling to cities in search of work.
In cities the most common work for workers, particularly men but also women, is that of construction workers. Many of them live in Bawana, in outer Delhi, in resettlement colonies and hut hamlets. During a recent visit I found them more disturbed by not just the increasing heat but also the reduced employment and poor living conditions.
Jairam, a migrant from Bundelkhand said, “Growing heat is no doubt a serious problem but if we have stable income then we can at least access better nutrition, but in times of low employment and income, nutrition levels also go down.”
Subhash Bhatnagar, a senior social activist who has struggled for decades and fought long legal cases in the Supreme Court of India as well for better rights and social security of construction workers, says, “Climate change is going to increase problems of construction workers certainly. We need better facilities like shade, drinking water and child-care on the one hand, and better overall social security on the other hand. ”
Jairam says, “ earlier when we stayed in the main city closer to employment availability, it was easier to get work closer to home and if we felt very weak or ill we could come back to home more easily. Now after slum demolitions we have been re-located so far away that this is no longer possible.”
This is even more so for women, who are employed more frequently as domestic workers. Kamla Devi says, “The stress of heat increases if after toiling in several households, we have to cope with crowded public transport and traffic jams to return home to cook dinner in a hot kitchen before falling asleep in a hot, congested, poorly ventilated room.”
It is not just the open space work in scorching weather conditions but also the poor income, nutrition and living condition of the poor which is increasing the risks for workers and small farmers. Better worksite facilities must therefore be accompanied by better livelihood support, health care and social security as well.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.