‘I’m in hell’: How rising heat is amplifying India’s social divides

As intensifying climate conditions make work harder and more dangerous, many families ask how they will survive the ‘unbearable’ weather.

Boys riding a bicycle cover their faces in Varanasi amid heatwave
Boys cover their faces on a hot summer afternoon in Varanasi on May 29, 2024, amid a heatwave [Niharika Kilkarni/AFP]

Patna, India — Satendra Kumar had been feeling unwell during the recent prolonged heatwave, sweating in his family’s one-room hut, but forced himself to go to work to repay the loan he had taken out for his daughter’s marriage. May 30, a Thursday, was particularly searing as he rode his bicycle to the workshop where he was employed as a carpenter in Aspura, 59km (37 miles) from Patna, the capital of Bihar state.

Once there, his health deteriorated, and Kumar asked his manager for a rare half-day off. On the way home, he lost consciousness under the scorching sun, falling off his bike less than 1km away from his home. By evening, his family’s frantic search for Kumar ended in a nearby government-run health centre, where he lay dead.

If you ask Suraj Kumar, 21, what killed his father, it was the “unbearable heat”. The doctor noted the same in their postmortem report.

“I’m leaving my studies and looking for a job now,” said Suraj, speaking at the family home. “The loan repayments are on me as well as the household expenses.”

Schools were ordered to shut and hospitals rushed to create “heat units” after temperatures in several areas of India’s north and south hovered around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in May and June. The weeks-long heatwave killed more than 200 people and led to more than 40,000 suspected cases of heatstroke, according to data from India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Experts and climate activists say the deaths are likely to be higher as local authorities may not correctly attribute some to heat.

The effect of record-breaking heatwaves has been disproportionately unequal, reinforcing divides within Indian society along caste and class lines, activists and researchers told Al Jazeera.

“The exclusion from welfare on caste-basis discrimination, or its crisscross with class factors in India is so widespread that it touches you whether it is the state budgets, development programmes, or a disaster like a heatwave,” said Paul Divakar, a renowned Dalit activist from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

“It is not only the natural part of the heat but the deliberate situation that we build where people from marginalised backgrounds are not treated as equal citizens. And they are the most vulnerable to this deadly heat.”

India heatwave
Sanju Devi’s husband Satendra Kumar collapsed and died on his way home from work during extreme heat conditions in late May [Mohammad Sartaj Alama/Al Jazeera]

‘How are we supposed to cope?’

The Kumar family of six had long dreamed of buying an air cooler for the 3.7-metre by 2-metre (12 feet by 7 feet) shanty, which Sanju Devi, Kumar’s 45-year-old wife, had made a home. The room has a gas stove to the right of the bed, although the family mostly cook indoors using cow dung as cooking fuel. Kitchen utensils are stuffed under the bed frame and, with their few belongings, they can pack up their lives in one suitcase, according to Devi.

Their village of Aspura has nearly 500 homes predominantly belonging to Kumar’s community which has been woodworkers for generations. They are listed among what the country calls “Other Backward Classes” (OBC), however, a survey studying their socioeconomic conditions has recommended their inclusion in the “Scheduled Castes” category, which could make them eligible for more opportunities in areas such as employment and education.

“Let alone food, we did not have money to buy wood for the cremation,” Devi said quietly as she spoke with Al Jazeera from her home in Aspura. “How are we supposed to cope with this heat?”

Increasing temperatures and humidity have drastically affected the working hours for millions in India, said Avinash Chanchal, senior campaign manager at the environmental NGO Greenpeace India. Many now work fewer hours and their earnings have dropped significantly. “But at the same time, they have to spend more money on heat-related, may we say, adaptative measures,” he explained.

A recent study by Greenpeace, in collaboration with the National Hawkers Federation, of the street vendors in the capital, New Delhi, found that 49.27 percent of respondents experienced a loss of income during heatwaves with 80.08 percent acknowledging a decline in customer numbers.

India heatwave story [Mohammad Sartaj Alama/Al Jazeera]
Sanju’s son Suraj says the ‘unbearable heat’ killed his father. He says he must now leave his studies to work to support his family [Mohammad Sartaj Alama/Al Jazeera]

‘This city is becoming unbearable to live in’

The neighbourhood of Mustafabad is among New Delhi’s poorest areas and comprises informal settlements where many households and garages are engaged in waste management. Dua Khatoon was 18 when she married a dismantler in the area more than 40 years ago. She soon learned the basics of the trade as well, plucking copper wires from transmitters and circuit boards.

The walls of her work area inside a garage have turned black from the smoke. When the heatwave struck this summer, the 59-year-old widow said she left her survival “up to the grace of Allah”.

“This place feels like an oven; like I’m in hell,” she said, speaking inside her work area, the space littered with copper wire.

“This city is becoming unbearable to live in. We don’t recognise this heat. It is very difficult to put into words this constant burn in your body. It feels like death.”

Khatoon is paid 50 Indian rupees ($0.6) for sorting through 10kg of waste. In contrast, the rent for the house she shares with her two sons and their families is 9,000 rupees ($110) per month. With their earnings, the family was able to buy an air cooler, with air conditioners unaffordable for most Indians. According to a government survey, the top 5 percent of the wealthiest Indians own 53 percent of the country’s air conditioners.

The family has seen how dangerous venturing out into the sweltering heat to go to work can be.

In June, Dua’s 28-year-old daughter-in-law Fozia said she had heatstroke while walking to a nearby well-off neighbourhood where she is employed as a domestic worker. “I couldn’t breathe and the vision was fading away fast,” Fozia recalled.

“When I entered the owner’s home, their AC [air-conditioner] saved my life. I sat down to apply ice packs and took leave.” She was forced to take three days unpaid leave to recover.

India heat election
On May 24, election officers rest beneath a parked bus on a hot summer day in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh as extreme temperatures strike parts of the country. Nearly 50 poll workers died in the final phase of the six-week-long Indian general election [Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP Photo]

Deepening segregation in cities

During their research with several communities in central India, Chanchal of Greenpeace said they found a lack of awareness regarding heat-related health issues.

“Then there is literally zero intervention by the government … for these communities to deal with heat,” he said.

The study on the heatwave’s effect on Delhi’s street vendors revealed that 97.6 percent of street vendors needed access to medical facilities, 95.9 percent lacked proper washroom facilities, and 91.5 percent did not have access to adequate drinking water. “The government does not appear to be preparing for this crisis,” Chanchal said. “They don’t have any concrete plans in place.”

In fast-deteriorating climate conditions, Divakar, the Dalit activist, said the survival of marginalised communities is also stacked against the basic architecture of Indian cities, which have increasingly become segregated in the last decades.

“If we look at the socioeconomic conditions of these communities or how the places have been built, and how much breathing space is between them,” he said. “We can see a difference and the inequality.”

Divakar, who has also worked with the victims of floods and droughts, said caste-based discrimination has again been reinforced by the recent heatwave.

“We need policy regulation and stricter implementation of the existing guidelines. And strengthening the agency of the communities themselves,” he added. “With conscious investment in equity measures in every sphere of our life – from wages, access to civic development, to the financial inclusion.”

Chanchal called for the government to create a legally binding heat-action plan, including “vulnerability mapping”, and “come up with the policies”.

India is among the largest emitters of gases heating the planet and is highly vulnerable to climate effects. A report by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment found that the country experienced extreme weather on nearly 90 percent of days in 2023.

Divakar noted the Indian government’s progressive standings on the global stage, including its commitments to the Paris Agreement to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. “But the government is not taking equity measures in these. Unless we do that, we are only treating climate as a problem of the elite while the most affected ones continue to die.”

Source: Al Jazeera