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

Greenpeace India-National Hawkers Federation survey shows vendors stare at health risks and income loss, as government fails to offer proper support.

Published : Jun 20, 2024 15:07 IST - 4 MINS READ

A fish vendor waits on a hot summer afternoon in New Delhi on May 29, 2024. Temperatures in the capital have soared to a record-high 49.9 degrees Celsius, and authorities are warning of water shortages in the sprawling mega-city.

A fish vendor waits on a hot summer afternoon in New Delhi on May 29, 2024. Temperatures in the capital have soared to a record-high 49.9 degrees Celsius, and authorities are warning of water shortages in the sprawling mega-city. | Photo Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP

Dehydration, heat exhaustion, fatal heat strokes. A recent study by Greenpeace India and the National Hawkers Federation, which surveyed 721 street vendors between April and May 2024, has shed light on the devastating impact of heatwaves on these informal sector workers in Delhi.

Street vendors in Delhi work 11.84 hours per day, finds the study titled “Heat Havoc: Investigating the Impact on Street Vendors”; most of them do not take breaks. The study also reported that around 50 per cent of Delhi’s street vendors face significant income loss and 80 per cent experience a decline in customers during the extremely hot months of April and May.

Women worst hit

Among the worst hit are women vendors, with seven out of eight women reporting high blood pressure. Middle-aged women talk about disruptions in their menstrual cycles and physical discomfort. All the women surveyed complain of sleeplessness at night and exhaustion during the day. They add that their children fall sick due to the heat too, with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, and nosebleeds.

On June 18, the India Meteorological Department issued a notice highlighting “heat wave to severe heat wave conditions” in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, and Delhi. This is the most recent notice in a long list that began in April. In May, Delhi’s temperature spiked to a record-breaking 50°C, with citizens retreating into their homes and locking themselves up in air-conditioned rooms. However, street vendors were forced to remain outdoors under a scorching sun, to earn their meagre livelihood.

Also Read | Delhi heatwave: How are residents coping with extreme weather?

The study, authored by Manoranjan Ghosh, Greenpeace India, and the National Hawkers Federation, also examines how the heat wave impacts vendors productivity and financial situation.

For vendors who sell prepared food, fresh fruits, and vegetables, which make up one-third of the total commodities sold, it is not just their health that the heat jeopardises but also their goods. In the heat, the vegetables deteriorate quickly, rot, and become unsellable. The report cites an average daily loss of Rs.500-600 because of the heat. To add to the malaise, the study found that 71.05 per cent of vendors struggle to get medical care due to financial constraints and therefore risk their lives daily.

To combat the heat, vendors express the need for financial assistance from local governing bodies to buy cooling appliances. Currently, they cover their heads with cloth and add curd and other cooling food to their diets. None of these measures are sustainable in the long run. The report lists recommendations, ranging from providing primary healthcare and drinking water stations to common cooling centres and government “loss and damage” funds.

Despite its growing severity, the government has yet to declare heatwaves as a notified disaster. According to Professor Ghosh, since India’s geographical area is vast and diverse with Delhi, Punjab, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh often experiencing heatwaves, and Assam and Kerala experiencing flooding, it is hard for heatwaves to be declared a “national disaster.” He adds, however, “epistemologically, it has to change. Looking at heatwave maps and especially the current heatwave ravaging South and South-East Asia, we need to change our understanding.”

For now, governments at various levels across the country—State, district, and city—have heat action plans, or HAPs. However, the report details that very few vendors are aware of HAP-2023 despite their knowledge of heat waves. Although the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi has publicly released its draft HAP 2023, it is yet to implement any strategies listed due to bureaucratic delay.

Lack of awareness about HAPs

Not surprisingly, while 68 per cent of vendors are aware of heatwaves, just 10 per cent know about Delhi’s HAP; 82 per cent have not received any guidance on handling extreme heat, the study notes.

According to Sandeep Verma, convenor of the National Hawker Federation Delhi, the Federation and Greenpeace hope to establish real numbers and data that could be produced before the government. Verma also explains the increase in cases of evicting vendors from their selling sites without a proper eviction notice. “According to the Street Vendor Act 2014, vendors cannot be evicted without proper notice and reason. However, the police are foregoing these procedures and looting vendors. When questioned, the police file FIRs against the vendors, leaving them helpless.”

Also Read | India saw extreme weather events almost every day from Jan to Sep 2023: report

Although the street vendor community is the lowest emitter of greenhouse gases in an urban setting, they bear the brunt of the heat. The report concludes with counter-measures, calling for phasing out fossil fuels and having polluters fund the expansion of green spaces in urban areas, thus promoting a more equitable and sustainable urban environment.

According to the report, between 1992-2015, as many as 24,223 people died across the country due to heatwaves and extreme temperature events, with Delhi being the most susceptible city. The street vendor community sees the highest casualties from heatwaves in urban areas as they often reside in informal settlements characterised by sparse natural vegetation and poor-quality housing. Moreover, they have limited access to electricity, and security, heightening their vulnerability.

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