Two new studies on the impact of the climate crisis on India, released last week, offer serious warnings. First, a study by the United States-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory, published in the Geophysical Research Letters, said that deadly heat waves may become common in South Asian countries, including India, in the coming decades even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Such an increase in extreme heat events, the report added, can create unsafe labour conditions in India. Another report by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago warned that the climate crisis may hurt Indian manufacturing due to heat stress on workers. Interestingly, the study indicates that in the absence of climate control, worker productivity declines on hot days, and there is absenteeism even in factories with cooling facilities. This is because workers remain exposed to high temperatures at home and outside. It is possible, the research warns, that the industrial sector might respond to high temperatures by increasing automation and shifting away from labour-intensive sectors in hot parts of the world.
Over the years, high temperatures, heat waves and deaths related to the phenomenon have been emerging as a serious challenge in India. Between 2010 and 2018, heat waves killed about 6,167 people. Unlike other extreme weather events, heat waves last much longer, are grossly under-reported and they are not even recognised under the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, making the phenomenon-related impacts ineligible for money from national or state disaster response funds.
The National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) sends out advisories on heat waves and most states have introduced Heat Action Plans (HAPs), but these action plans and warning systems can only be effective with more resources. The additional funding is needed to ensure cooler worksites, climate-resilient housing, strengthening forecasting and early warning systems, building capacity of health care professionals, making cities more green, and increasing engagement with civil society organisations to spread awareness. Making HAPs more robust will also make strong economic sense, and ensure that India does not have to pay a “heat tax”, which can erode the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector and also hurt the wages of poor workers.