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Green Is The New Black

India’s Heatwave: We Need to Pay Attention, It’s Already Too Late

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The past few weeks’ mainstream headlines have been wildly underreporting news about the heatwave hitting India and Pakistan. Temperature records have been set. But not even otherworldly temperatures and burnt bodies can get people to finally pay attention.

A brutal, record-intensity heatwave has engulfed much of India and Pakistan since March. We’re talking temperatures up to 50 degrees Celsius, dangerously high levels of heat stress that exceed the limit of survivability for people living and working outdoors, putting hundreds of millions at risk. For context: human skin temperature averages close to 35 degrees Celsius so 50 can lead to fatal consequences within six hours, even for healthy people in well-ventilated conditions. And scientists say the worst part of the year is yet to come.

Hottest summer burns billions

The main summer months in India are excruciatingly hot in most parts of the country. But the heatwave has arrived early and grown particularly intense in the past decade. Usually, extreme heat in this area is closely followed by cooling monsoons, but these are still months away.

The cascading effects of this year’s heatwave are hurting the working poor the most: Wheat harvests have been damaged. Electricity (and coal) demand has soared. Temperatures are rising rapidly in the country and rising much earlier than usual. Landfills and forests are catching fire. Important buildings, especially hospitals, have to be shut down to accommodate the loss of power. Heatwaves affect infrastructure, ecosystems and health too (cardiovascular diseases, kidney failure, respiratory distress and liver failure).

This is not a freak situation

Heatwaves have killed more than 6,500 people in India since 2010 and scientists say climate change is making them harsher and more frequent across South Asia. The IPCC’s latest report stated that heatwaves will become more intense. The current heatwave is affecting over 1.5 billion people and over the next 50 years, the population of the Indian subcontinent is projected to increase by a further 30%.

During another deadly heatwave in 2019, Churu (in the state of Rajasthan) was the hottest town at 50.8°C. This is not far from the highest recorded temperatures on earth at Death Valley (California) and Mitribah (Kuwait) of 54.0°C. During this period, India’s National Disaster Management Authority announced that at least 36 workers had been burnt to death. The number is much lower than the 2,081 who died in a 2015 heatwave.

This is not an atypical event. India’s weather has been measured since the late 18th century and, as of 2019, of the 15 hottest years on record, 11 of them have been recorded since 2004. If this is not a sign of an impending climate disaster, what is?

Work is forced to continue

India has issued an ‘orange alert’ which means that the residents must be “prepared”. But how much is the government really doing to ensure people stay indoors by putting a halt on business as usual? Virtually nothing.

Construction work and work out in the fields continues, and workers are forced to return because there is no compensation for those who don’t. The working poor and homeless are left to fend for themselves.

In a piece titled Burnt workers are the newest wave of climate casualty, Vijay Prashad looks at what the future would look like if workers had more power. Heatwave is a grave threat to workers out in the field and on building sites. What we need is a mandatory moratorium on work in the sun (this is a start in the short term).

“The workers will flee and then be treated as criminals. Their choices are limited: to die under the blistering sun or to die on the road,” he writes, “But there is an alternative. They build unions to bargain from strength.”

This is what (social) murder looks like

“Distress due to poverty gives the worker only the choice of starving slowly, killing himself quickly, or taking what he needs where he finds it — in plain English, stealing. And it is not surprising that the majority prefer to steal rather than starve to death.” —Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England.

Engels’ concept of “Social Murder” comprehends how the class that holds social and political power places masses of working-class persons in such a position that they inevitably meet an early and unnatural death. There is something systematic, systemic, and procedural about this under capitalism.

How many exploited workers and families of workers have been burnt to death since the start of the heatwaves this year? (And really, how reliable are these numbers?) How many birds have fallen out of the sky as temperatures hit record high? The state treats the backbone of the country, the people who literally build everything brick by brick, as insignificant deaths not worth its attention.

Climate breakdown, and heatwaves, are human-induced. As has been repeatedly proven, the world has all the money and tools to mitigate climate harm but it chooses not to. At COP26, the developed countries pledged to spend a modest $100 billion on the Adaptation Fund to assist developing countries to adapt to climate change. On the other hand, on 25 April, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) issued its annual report, finding that the world military spending surpassed $2 trillion in 2021, the first time it has exceeded the $2 trillion mark. The world chooses to spend money on weapons as the planet burns. This is murderous; these heatwave human and non-human deaths could have been averted.

Protect the working poor

It’s fundamental, for the good of the movement, to remember that it wasn’t always like this, people have been previously protected from disasters. And it’s very much within reach. We are really not asking for a lot, just the minimum short-term relief.

In 2019, the Indian state of Kerala (population 35 million) was governed by the Left Democratic Front, a political alliance of left-wing political parties. As the heatwave developed in India, the left-wing government announced a mandatory embargo on work in the hottest part of the day (11 am to 3 pm). They even warned that if employers did not comply, they would be prosecuted. This decision was prompted when construction workers came to hospitals in Kerala with sunburn.

Meanwhile, Modi’s government right now is issuing orange alerts and sharing tips on how to stay cool indoors. “Indoors” is tragically a privilege the working poor simply cannot afford. We need to use everything we have—social media, alternate media, organising, unionising, and more—to make the right (and loud) noise, on these heatwaves’ history and future, heard.


IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Bare tree in a desert, with sandhills in the background 

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