Extreme heat poses a threat to voters as India’s election kicks off

With extreme heatwaves predicted during India’s six-week election, experts weigh in on India’s ability to face the heat.

Published : Apr 19, 2024 16:17 IST - 3 MINS READ

With the first phase of the 2024 general election starting on April 19, experts call for more preventative measures against heatwaves in both polling stations and rallies. The Election Commission of India has taken steps to provide drinking water and canopies to tackle the heat effectively.

With the first phase of the 2024 general election starting on April 19, experts call for more preventative measures against heatwaves in both polling stations and rallies. The Election Commission of India has taken steps to provide drinking water and canopies to tackle the heat effectively. | Photo Credit: Karthikeyan G

Campaign rallies under a blazing sun, long treks to rural polling stations—as Indians prepare to vote, forecasts for extreme heat could add to the challenges of holding the world’s biggest election. With voting starting on April 19, parties and authorities are being urged to do more to keep voters, candidates, and polling station staff safe following heat warnings by the India Meteorolgical Department (IMD) for the six-week election period.

During the April-June summer season, various parts of the country could record 10 to 20 heatwave days compared to the normal four to eight, head of the IMD, Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, said earlier in April. “Most parts of the south peninsula, central India, east India, and plains of northwest India will experience above normal heatwave days with temperatures hitting or crossing 40°C (104°F),” Mohapatra told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

While hot weather is part of everyday life for the country’s 1.4 billion people, the intensity and frequency of heatwaves in India is rising due to climate change, increasing the risk of working or other outdoor activities.

Eleven people died and several more were hospitalised with heatstroke after they attended a political event held under the afternoon sun in Maharashtra in April 2023. Anxious to avoid similar tragedies, the Election Commission of India has instructed electoral officers in each State to raise awareness about the dangers of extreme weather conditions and take steps to help voters cope with the scorching heat.

The measures for polling stations include ensuring the availability of drinking water, rigging up canopies for shade, and providing childcare facilities. They will also need to have medical kits, healthcare volunteers, and ambulances on hand on voting days. “A billion people will come out to vote ... It’s going to be very challenging for us,” Kiren Rijiju, Union Minister for Earth Sciences, said in April. “All the States have made elaborate preparations.”

Also Read | What do election manifestos of the Congress, CPI(M) and BJP have to say on environmental issues?

However, electoral authorities have issued no specific heat guidance for campaign rallies. “There should be strict guidelines on hours of the day when rallies and meetings can be organised if there is a heatwave,” said Dileep Mavalankar, the former director of Gandhinagar-based Indian Institute of Public Health. Mavalankar helped draw up India’s first heat action plan for the city of Ahmedabad in 2013. “Rallies should be suspended or moved indoors where possible, ambulances and paramedics should be on hand and local hospitals on standby.”

Heat stroke risks

Heat stress occurs at temperatures above 35°C (95°F) in high humidity, according to the International Labour Organization. Heat stroke can occur if body temperature rises above 40°C, with children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing conditions most at risk.

“Government authorities should make people aware of the risks, but are often blase about the dangers,” said Abinash Mohanty, a climate scientist and sector head for climate change at IPE Global, an international development organisation. “Elections... can also be an opportunity to increase awareness around the risks of heat especially around its health impacts,” Mohanty said.

In Telangana, Anvesh Reddy, a politician with the Kisan Congress, said the party was taking its own precautions as temperatures top 40°C. “We have mostly been meeting voters between 6 am and 10 am in the morning and then after 5 pm in the evening,” Reddy said.

Also Read | West Asia warming up is bad news for India

A political consultant from Maharashtra echoed Mavalankar’s calls for specific guidelines on organising rallies. “(That) could help ensure that no party takes rally management lightly, as they would not want to give the opposition any excuse for criticism,” said the consultant, who asked not to be named because he works for several different parties.

“Campaign events in large venues usually have medical staff on duty, but they are ‘just there to tick the box’”, said another political consultant in Uttar Pradesh. “If a tragedy like the one in Maharashtra last year happens again at a rally, the capacity is never enough compared to the number of people in attendance.”

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