India’s heat action plans exclude the most vulnerable: Report

New Delhi-based think tank points out a lack of funding and preparation after analysing 37 regional and federal plans.

India workers and heatwave
A labourer works at a construction site on a hot summer day in Noida outside New Delhi [File: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]

With temperatures set to soar next month, Indian authorities need more resources and better preparation to deal with searing heat, particularly for the most vulnerable communities around the country, a New Delhi-based think tank has said.

Analysing 37 regional and federal heat action plans, the Centre for Policy Research found this week that the plans are not updated regularly, do not have separate budgets in most cases, have no legal support to implement them, and that the most vulnerable populations in any given region are not identified in the plans.

Heat plans started springing up around the nation after blistering heatwaves surpassing 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) in 2010 killed more than 800 people in the northwestern city of Ahmedabad.

City authorities and other organisations swiftly pulled together South Asia’s first-ever response plan to protect communities through initiatives like awareness programmes, specialised training for health care professionals and installing roofs made of cooling materials like coconut husks and paper waste.

Several other heat plans have been drawn up at the state and federal levels since.

“India has made considerable progress by creating several dozen heat action plans in the last decade. But our assessment reveals several gaps that must be filled in future plans,” said Aditya Pillai, an associate fellow at CPR and co-author of the report.

In a report in November last year, the World Bank said India could experience intense heatwaves that could test the limits of human survival.

The report, titled Climate Investment Opportunities in India’s Cooling Sector, warned that India could become one of the first places in the world where wet-bulb temperatures, a combination of the air’s temperature and humidity, could exceed the survivability threshold of 35 Celsius (95 Fahrenheit).

Unlike with other disasters such as cyclones, it is still unclear who should fund and implement India’s heat action plans, said Abhiyant Tiwari, lead of the climate resilience and health programme in India for the Natural Resources Defence Council.

“Funding for heat plans is the elephant in the room,” he said. “While the Indian government is cognisant of the threat of extreme heat, it will definitely help if the issues this report flags [such as how vulnerable communities can be better protected] are also addressed.”

At least 26,000 people have died due to heat in the last 30 years in India alone, according to a recent report. Residents of urban slums, people with longstanding health issues, older or pregnant people, workers in small, enclosed spaces, farmers and construction workers are among the most vulnerable.

Sizzling temperatures and heatwaves are becoming more common as humans pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming, scientists say.

India’s weather office has forecast rising temperatures in the coming weeks after the country experienced its hottest February since 1901, media reports said.

Increasing humidity, another consequence of human-caused climate change, is particularly dangerous in southern India, where relatively lower temperatures can be fatal in moist air.

A 2021 report found that India will also likely lose the most work hours in the world, greater than 100 billion hours every year, as a result of scorching heat. Most current heat plans do factor in economic and climate concerns.

Pillai called for changes to the heat response, such as labelling heatwaves disasters, regularly monitoring and evaluating heat action plans, establishing laws that implement the plans, and ensuring that they have enough funding.

He said there is a “solid foundation” but changes need to happen immediately to prevent any more major loss of life. “A lot more needs to be done,” said Pillai.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies