The heat will kill the economy. But it will kill us first

India’s heatwave is a wake-up call for climate action and economic resilience. But what’s the government actually doing about it?

Published : Jun 23, 2024 10:48 IST - 7 MINS READ

A man carries a child, head covered with a towel to protect from the heat, in Jammu on June 2, 2024.

A man carries a child, head covered with a towel to protect from the heat, in Jammu on June 2, 2024. | Photo Credit: Channi Anand/AP

In his book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet Jeff Goodell writes; “We simply have not come to terms with it, especially in the way I am describing. It is not how anyone expects to die. In part, it’s because we live in a technologically advanced world where it’s all too easy to believe that the rough forces of nature have been tamed. But it’s also because our world is changing so fast that we can’t grasp the scale and urgency of the dangers we face.”

India came face to face with that reality over the last few weeks. Its ongoing heatwave, the longest ever, and one that saw a marathon election held, has, at last count, seen 143 recorded deaths and close to 42,000 people suffering from suspected heatstroke.

Intense heat has not popped up like a surprise shower on a balmy afternoon. India saw an extreme heatwave in March 2022, which was the hottest in India since records began 122 years ago and extreme humid heat in April 2023, where 13 casualties due to heat stroke were reported in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra on one day alone. Most recently, a study by the World Weather Attribution Initiative confirmed that one, extreme heat in South Asia during the pre-monsoon season is becoming more frequent; and two, that climate change has played a key role in ratcheting up the 2024 April mean temperature. Extreme temperatures are now about 45 times more likely and 0.85 degrees Celsius hotter. In other words, heat across India isn’t just increasing: it is steadily ticking higher on the back of human-caused actions.

Heat, and increased heat such as the one large parts of India is experiencing, has serious ramifications for India’s economy. For the farm and agricultural community this spells disaster. In the past two years, India’s wheat harvest shrank due to severe heatwaves during the March-April period. This current heatwave may hit wheat output and also impact the yield for crops such as rice and sugar. Not just that, heat affects crop quality. For farmers dealing with the cost of seeds, fertilisers, and other agricultural essentials, crop failure can spell disaster in the form of more debt.

Also Read | Delhi’s street vendors bear the brunt of extreme heat, study reveals devastating impact

For consumers, it could mean prolonged and uncomfortably high food inflation. Government tinkering with imports (easing them) or exports (curbing them) could have very limited impact on the price of staples because of how tight supplies have been since last year and it will have little to no effect on the prices of vegetables that have much shorter shelf lives and where reports indicate there is already spoiling in harvested crops such as tomatoes and onions. Milk prices have been rising and earlier this month, both Amul and Mother Dairy upped prices across all markets. Groceries constitute close to a quarter of the total expenses in households and those costs have been rising, even as survey after survey points to concerns among middle-class families on how to cope.

None of this, nor other economic outcomes from intense heat, are ‘new news’ for the government. The Climate Transparency Report of 2021 noted that Indian rice production could decrease by 10 to 30 per cengt, and maize production could drop by a staggering 25 to 70 per cent with temperature increases in the range of 1–4 degrees Celsius. Extreme heat, the report warned, could also make it unbearable and dangerous to work in a range of economically important sectors. The potential income loss in 2021—in the service industry, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction sectors—from labour capacity reduction due to extreme heat was estimated at $159 billion in 2021 in India; that is over 5 per cent of the country’s GDP. Power demand is already surging, even as coal stockpiles are running low; a déjà vu moment to the acute power shortage India faced in 2022.

What has the track record of the Modi government been, to this clear and present danger of heat? At COP26 in 2021, the Prime Minister pledged to reach net zero by 2070. Today, coal still accounts for over 50 per cent of the country’s energy needs. Surely the Prime Minister is aware that burning fossil fuels and razing down forest cover is a recipe for disaster in a country where nearly 90 per cent of its districts are believed to be in a “danger zone” from heatwave impact.

Rampant environmental clearances

The NDA government also holds the unique distinction of issuing environmental clearances at a speed India has never seen before. So much so that ahead of the just concluded general election, the Election Commission, after first refusing to, allowed the environment ministry to issue green clearances, while the Model Code of Conduct was underway. The Parivesh Portal, set up to track clearances for large projects, shows that just in this year, 675 projects have been granted environmental clearance.

In 2023, the State environment minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey told Parliament that the time taken to grant environmental and coastal clearances had reduced from over 150 days in 2019 to less than 70 days in 2022 while forest clearances had seen the waiting time reduced by about a week to around 180 days. In the previous year, an amnesty window that had purportedly opened for just six months in March 2017 to clear projects in a novel “violation category” had been converted into a routine presence through a Union environment ministry notification. The window provided ex-post facto approval to over 100 projects till the Supreme Court stayed the notification in January this year.

A woman washes her face with water to cool off during a hot summer day near the India Gate in New Delhi on June 17, 2024.

A woman washes her face with water to cool off during a hot summer day near the India Gate in New Delhi on June 17, 2024. | Photo Credit: MONEY SHARMA/AFP

Many of these clearances and industry relationships also have a quid pro quo element to them. Take Vedanta Ltd: the mining conglomerate been accused of running a covert campaign to allow mining companies to significantly boost production without having to secure new environmental clearances. It has been a repeat offender around environmental violations across its mining and oil and gas projects in India, and it now emerges, Vedanta is also the buyer of electoral bonds worth Rs.400.65 crore, as per data released by the State of Bank of India.

Also Read | Proposed infrastructure project in Great Nicobar Island a mega folly

Rampant environmental clearances for large industrial projects are wreaking havoc on India’s climate. Himachal Pradesh has seen four-lane highways rip into its hills even as unplanned buildings on river banks collapse like Jenga blocks in the face of torrential rains: a clear example of the damage excess and irresponsible development can do. Even as heat sears through northern India, at the other end of the country, plans are afoot to build a $9-billion mega-infrastructure project in the Great Nicobar Island. This involves a massive transshipment terminal, an airport, a township and a gas and solar power plant, all of which will come at the cost of felling over 13,000 hectares of rainforest.

India’s economy will see serious damage in the face of severe heatwaves, exacerbated by dwindling green cover and urban living spaces that are collapsing under rising water and electricity demand. Before economic damage come lives. Public administration has come up woefully unprepared in its heat preparedness starting with the myopic and criminally obtuse decision by the Election Commission to hold elections over 44 days, in the peak of a dangerously hot summer.

The current heatwave has in its immediate aftermath caused death and illness, but in an inequitable fashion. Heat disproportionately hits the economically disadvantaged, squeezing their access to water, electricity and medical attention. India’s poor do not live in air-conditioned homes and leafy neighbourhoods, they live in cramped housing with poor insulation and cooling mechanisms. Neither do they have pumps that suck water from the very womb of the earth to feed and bathe themselves and their family members. Instead, they race behind water tankers and queue up in the baking heat for a bucket of water. In another sphere of this apocalyptic situation, doctors are immersing patients in icy water even as surgeries get postponed due to a lack of water and long power outages.

The focus now needs to be on dealing with the ‘heat emergency’ many parts of India face and trying to provide support, shelter and care to those affected. But what we should not do, is let this pass. The government can live in denial, voters won’t.

Mitali Mukherjee is Director of the Journalist Programmes at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. She is a political economy journalist with more than two decades of experience in TV, print and digital journalism. Mitali has co-founded two start-ups that focussed on civil society and financial literacy and her key areas of interest are gender and climate change.

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