Heat Wave Impacts must be seen Together with Inequalities and Injustices in Society

Heatwave India

Aggravation and intensification of heat waves has been reported from several countries. This has resulted in increasing problems for many millions of people including increasing livelihood and health problems. Increased mortality has also been reported. Well-informed people have stated that these estimates of increased mortality may be serious under-estimates, particularly in poorer societies.

During the last week I have been travelling extensively in Bundelkhand region of Central India, which is widely regarded as one of the heat wave hot spots of India. For a stretch of several days, maximum temperatures ranged between 42C and 49C. This has created problems for most people and for most forms of life. People are debating the coming serious and increasingly unbearable situation if these trends of increasingly hot and extended summers as well as intensifying heat waves persist and are aggravated further during the next decade.

However one aspect is often missed out in this narrative about the heat wave. This relates to the differential impact of the heat wave on different sections of people in a society which is characterized by high levels of injustice and inequality. In particular it is important to note that it is the poorest and the weakest sections, particularly the landless workers in villages and those dependent on daily wage earnings in cities who suffer the most from the intensification of heat waves.

Conversations with these sections of workers often drift into high hard and hazardous it is to toil in the heat wave conditions, but invariably end with workers saying—however, of course we have to continue working no matter how hot the conditions as we must work in order to be able to eat.

Both land-owning farmers and landless farm workers suffer in heat wave conditions. However the farmer has the option of choosing his working hours. He can go to his fields very early in the morning and return before the sun gets too hot. He has the option of going again to work in the fields in the evening. However this choice may not be available to the daily wage worker, whether in rural or in urban areas, who may have to continue to toil on very hot afternoons depending on the insistence of the employer.

Hence landless daily wage workers, men as well as women, are likely to suffer the most in terms of their inability to avoid the most difficult and hot working hours. Most of their work has to be done in conditions of open space and hence the extent of exposure to heat can be extreme. At the same time, as they are extremely poor their living conditions are not such as to provide them much relief when they return home tired from work.

At the other extreme, some of the most powerful and arrogant employers may increase their tendency to exert pressure on poorer or weaker workers to work in their fields during  heat wave days as it becomes increasingly difficult to get workers during these difficult days. In Bundelkhand there are notorious ‘dabangs’ in many villages who are known for their tendency to use their powers, based on money, musclemen and contacts, to exert pressures on weaker people to do their bidding.  This can sometimes take extremely oppressive forms, as seen in a recent shocking incident in Gharoda village of Banda district in which an 18 year boy was killed by three members of a feudal family just because he refused to go to their fields for work.

Thus while some rich households concentrate attention merely on maintaining their comforts while temperatures soar, others have to toil in more and more adverse conditions, sometimes even losing their life in the process.

In terms of living conditions, poorer families generally face many more problems in accessing adequate, assured and clean water supply. In terms of transport and going to their workplace, again they face much more difficult situations. Many daily wage workers have to wait in more or less open spaces for work.

While clearly there is need for many-sided efforts to reduce the threats and risks from heat waves in the form of improved green cover, better water conservation and availability of adequate clean and cool water, better nutrition and preparedness of essential medical facilities, at the same time it is important to take care of the much more important and urgent special needs of the weaker sections and poorer people to cope with the many-sided problems of intensifying heat waves.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.        

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