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In rising heat, the cry of the wilting outdoor worker

By Vinod Thomas , Mehtab Ahmed Jagil

More asphalt-melting heatwaves driven by runaway climate change are on the way. The consequences for health and livelihoods are catastrophic, as a third of South Asia’s population depends on outdoor work. To get to grips with this predicament, India must initiate safety nets — a combination of targeted transfers and insurance schemes — to improve the resilience of outdoor workers. Transfers are best linked to the beneficiaries’ own efforts to build resilience, for example, adapting agricultural practices to the uptick in heatwaves. Disaster insurance schemes, far too few in India, should enable workers to transfer some of the losses from debilitating heat to public and private insurance providers.

A hotter future in South Asia

The intensity and frequency of heatwaves have soared in South Asia and they are set to worsen in the years ahead. Extreme heat conditions have hit swathes of India, not only in the northern States of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and New Delhi, but now increasingly also in the south. Following the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) April forecast that maximum temperatures in some parts of Tamil Nadu would rise by 2°-3° Celsius, recorded temperatures hit 41°C in Vellore, Karur, Tiruchi and Tiruttani. Delhi this month suffered its second warmest April in 72 years, temperatures averaging 40.2°C, and Gurgaon in neighbouring Haryana crossed 45°C for the first time. Labour-intensive agriculture and construction have become near impossible during afternoons.

Over the last 100 years, global temperatures have risen by 1.5°C and, at the current rate, could reach 4°C by 2100 — an unthinkable scenario. So far in the year, 2022 has been the fifth-warmest year on record. The prevalence of extreme temperatures around the world suggests that India’s warming is the result not only of local factors but also global warming. In fact, scientists have made clear how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions exacerbate temperatures in the oceans, leading to soaring temperatures. The culprit in the current plight from intense weather is not Mother Nature but anthropogenic GHG emissions. Crucially, heatwaves and wildfires are ‘unimaginable’ without human-caused climate change, according to a study done by World Weather Attribution in July 2021.

High economic losses

The impacts are dire across the world. Heatwaves are proving to be Europe’s deadliest climate disaster. India faces the largest heat exposure impacts in South Asia. One study finds that 1,41,308 lives were claimed by acute weather in India during 1971-2019, of which the loss of 17,362 lives was due to unrelenting heat, with mortality rates rising by two-thirds during the time period. Worldwide economic losses, by one estimate, could reach U.S.$1.6 trillion (₹1.6 lakh crore) annually if global warming exceeds 2°C. India, China, Pakistan, and Indonesia, where large numbers of people work outdoors, are among the most vulnerable.

India’s outdoor workers, reeling under daily temperatures more than 40°C, are on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe. The well-being of outdoor workers will be fundamentally determined by the ability to keep the temperature rise to well below 2°C. Reversing climate change is predicated on leading emitters, including India, moving away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels, and replacing them with cleaner, renewable fuels. But such climate mitigation in India and elsewhere is painfully slow, because of a lack of political will in the major emitting countries for decisive action.

Adaptation is essential

In the meantime, hotter temperatures are making outdoor work unbearable, in addition to other dire consequences. Climate mitigation or decarbonisation of economies on the part especially of the big emitters, such as the United States, the European Union, China, and India remains an imperative. But temperatures are set to rise regardless of mitigation, based on the emission damage already done. That means climate adaptation, or coping with the predicament, is as big a priority as mitigation.

A crucial aspect of adaptation is better environmental care that can contribute to cooling. Heatwaves are rooted in degraded land and relentless deforestation, which exacerbate wildfires. Agriculture, being water-intensive, does not do well in heat wave-prone areas. A solution is to promote better agricultural practices which are not water-intensive, and to support afforestation that has a salutary effect on warming.

Response to the current plight of outdoor workers can be linked to climate adaptation. Financial transfers can be targeted to help farmers plant trees and buy equipment better suited for the extreme weather. For example, support for drip irrigation can reduce heavy water usage. Averting slash and burn agriculture and stubble burning is not only key to cutting air pollution but also cooling temperatures. Urban green such as street trees, urban forests and green roofs can help cool urban areas. Workers in cities and villages can benefit from early warning systems and better preparedness as well as community outreach programmes during an episode.

Collaboration for insurance

Insurance schemes can help transfer some of the risks of severe heat faced by industrial, construction and agricultural workers to insurers. Insurance against natural hazards is minimal not only in India but also Asia where less than 10% of the losses are typically covered. Government and insurers need to collaborate in providing greater coverage of losses from extreme weather events, including for calamities from brutal heat.

Editorial | Mercury rising: On intense heat in several parts of the country

For greater effectiveness, transfers and insurance payments can be tied to investments in resilience made at the local levels, such as restoring the urban environment that has a cooling effect. Delhi’s Aravali Biodiversity Park is a stand-out example that transformed a barren landscape into forest communities protecting greenery and biodiversity. Transfers could also be linked with mapping of the incidence of heatwaves across locations. The most severely affected areas are also likely to be the most poverty-prone and need stronger insurance packages, including guarantees for crop losses. Incentive schemes could also be tailored to annual changes in the intensity of the hazard.

Studies warn of heat-stress inequalities where the poorer segments of the populations are especially battered by heatwaves. The projections of the IMD can guide future scenarios, which the Central government can use to develop subsidies and insurance schemes linked to State and district-level actions for building resilience to climate change. Insurance schemes require public and private sectors to jointly set out risk-sharing mechanisms that outdoor workers can avail of.

Targeted transfers and insurance schemes can cushion financial hardships, for example, by improving crop resilience to heatwaves. Making them part of the Government’s economic programmes is one way to make these safety net policies sustainable and hard to reverse, as international experience with cash transfer programmes shows.

A priority

India offers a range of food and fuel subsidies, but most of them are poorly targeted. For example, kerosene subsidies provide modest financial benefit to disadvantaged rural households, with only 26% of the subsidy value estimated to reach the poor directly. As the efficiency and the equity of existing subsidies are re-examined, the provision of transfers and insurance linked to building climate resilience should become a priority.

Heatwaves, exacerbated by climate change, are embroiling regions of India in a downward spiral, and the situation is projected to get worse. Outdoor labourers are especially hammered by the relentless heat. Tying cash transfers and insurance schemes to State and local green investments will not only provide some financial cover for outdoor workers but also motivate small-scale investments in much-needed resilience to heatwaves.

Vinod Thomas and Mehtab Ahmed Jagil are, respectively, Visiting Professor, and Candidate for Master’s in Public Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

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Dive Deeper:
A climate scientist on India and Pakistan's horror heatwave, and the surprising consequences of better air quality
The record-shattering heatwave that engulfed most of India and Pakistan through March and April brought temperatures exceeding 45℃ in many…
Climate change experts say India's heatwave offers the world a terrifying glimpse into the future
More than 1 billion people in India and Pakistan are sweltering through a record-breaking heatwave. Is this a taste of…
India, Pakistan must brace for even worse heatwaves
Paris (AFP) - The devastating heatwave that gripped India and Pakistan over the last two months is unprecedented, but worse…
The World Has No Choice but to Care About India’s Heat Wave
How the country meets an escalating demand for energy is a problem the whole world must reckon with.
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
The window of opportunity to address increasing drought and expanding drylands is vanishing
Chile, Argentina and the American West are in the midst of a decade-long, megadrought — the driest conditions those regions…
India heatwave: why the region should prepare for even more extreme heat in the near future
An extreme heatwave in India and Pakistan has left more than a billion people in one of the most densely…
Get all your news in one place