To survive heatwaves, we need a moratorium on cutting down trees

Prior to this heatwave, several workers I spoke to asked why they couldn’t start working at 5 am and ending at 1 pm? Coupled with workplaces designed for frequent rest, shade and hydration, this could be a first step.
About 80% of the workforce in urban India is informal (90% in rural India). We know them as cobblers, workers in construction and waste, and street vendors, among other people who make cities liveable. They are vulnerable to the heat; their work requires them to be on the streets, facing the elements, for the most part, without any cooling comfort. (AFP) PREMIUM
About 80% of the workforce in urban India is informal (90% in rural India). We know them as cobblers, workers in construction and waste, and street vendors, among other people who make cities liveable. They are vulnerable to the heat; their work requires them to be on the streets, facing the elements, for the most part, without any cooling comfort. (AFP)
Updated on May 17, 2022 09:24 PM IST
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India is literally melting these days, hitting temperatures inconceivable a few years ago. This is not surprising — global warming-related heatwaves were predicted. But the heat is so intense and its escalation so rapidly, that it has left us gasping. Plans to counter heatwaves exist. Most of them focus on a few issues: Identifying a heatwave in the context of local conditions; public awareness; illness prevention and public action. Despite these plans, a significant chunk of urban India’s population will get singed. This is the informal workforce.

About 80% of the workforce in urban India is informal (90% in rural India). We know them as cobblers, workers in construction and waste, and street vendors, among other people who make cities liveable. They are vulnerable to the heat; their work requires them to be on the streets, facing the elements, for the most part, without any cooling comfort. Most live off a daily wage, forcing them to work despite the cold or heat. Their urban homes remain informal shanties, made of cartons, bricks, tin roofs and plastic sheets. These provide almost no protection against the heat, or even the cold. Most don’t even enjoy access to cold water, far less any of the prescribed means of recovery from heat injuries. India is in real danger of loss of lives from the heat pandemic. A study in Lancet projects the deaths from heat in India at 83,700 per annum. As workers push themselves to work, data shows their productivity falls. A McKinsey report projects that by 2030, outdoor work hours lost in India will be 15%, which could result in a $150-250 billion risk to the Gross Domestic Product.

What is to be done? The International Labour Organization in its Working on a Warmer Planet report, pointed out that construction workers are among the more vulnerable. In India, building infrastructure is a key strategy for economic growth. The 2022-23 Budget allocated 20,000 crore for highway expansion. Who will build these roads if even 10% of the approximately 50 million workers’ productivity nosedives?

Prior to this heatwave, several workers I spoke to asked why they couldn’t start working at 5 am and ending at 1 pm? Coupled with workplaces designed for frequent rest, shade and hydration, this could be a first step. Other professions are also challenged. Brick kiln workers are always likely to be near intense heat, or in brutally hot, enclosed spaces. Waste pickers soldier on in sizzling landfills. We must look for improved conditions for workers. But it isn’t enough protection. Decent housing is key to surviving intense heat, cold and rain. While government housing schemes struggle to provide more of the poor with pucca houses, interim measures are vital. Many of these are simple fixes: For example, setting up community cool spaces, including near slums, or, opening up public and private spaces such as stadiums and empty college hostels to provide cool spaces. Urban India’s informal workers live hand to mouth. They have barely any savings, no real homes, nothing to hold onto. Despite progressive steps such as the e-shram portal, the wrath of the climate crisis shows that systemic shifts are the only way to blunt the impact.

Urban India needs a reset to prevent a meltdown. Housing for everyone, including the poor, must be designed to be cooler; it cannot be business as usual. Cities must densify green cover. On the one hand, old trees and open spaces are key to combating the heat island effect. These must be preserved. Creating densely shaded areas in every ward could reduce the local experience of brutal heat as workers typically walk, cycle or wait at bus stops. To survive these heatwaves and grow our economy, we need a moratorium on cutting down trees altogether. On the other hand, societal prejudices must break, so the poor can share resources. Today, few urban neighbourhoods accept the plumber or cobbler resting in a shady park. Work times, too, must shift. To create societal acceptance and a smooth transition, why not move to an Indian summer time? The vocal middle class might detest it, but for millions of other Indians, such an overhaul could be a means of staying alive.

Bharati Chaturvedi is founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group The views expressed are personal

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Bharati Chaturvedi is an environmentalist and writer. She is the founder and director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

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Monday, July 04, 2022