Suman Shakya wants me to touch the concrete wall of her bedroom, where her one-year-old son lies drenched in sweat. It burns my hand like a hot pan. “Now imagine sitting in front of a hot pan in this weather for as long as it takes to make rotis for the whole family,” she says.
The outside temperature is 44 °C (111 °F). My throat is dry and my head is spinning. Sweat pours down my face, gets into my eyes and blurs my vision.
Shakya lives in the farming village of Nagla Tulai in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the heat has been brutal lately. The villagers here have always had to endure hot summers, but in recent years they have tested their strength.
This year, after the end of the harsh winter, the temperature has been rising since March. In mid-May, it reached 49 °C (120 °F), the highest temperature India has recorded in 122 years. Since May, local news reports have attributed more than 50 deaths to the record heat.
In late April, when the daytime temperature exceeded 45 °C (113 °F), most residents of Nagla Tulai sought help from the hot winds blowing outdoors. Since alarming temperatures began to hit northwest India, local governments are advising people to stay out of the sun if they can help it. But Nagla Tulai is one of the few Indian villages yet to be electrified. This means that there are no fans, refrigerators and air conditioners for its 150 or so households.
Instead, the women of Nagla Tulai took their cooking to the rooftops. There they sit for hours, stuffing the stove into their clay ovens to burn even as the sun from above breathes fire upon them. “You can’t even wipe the sweat off your face; it will get your hands wet and spoil the rotis,” says Shakya.
Cause and effect
That climate change is exacerbating heat waves in South Asia is no longer in doubt. This year alone, two new studies have explored the links. A report by the World Weather Attribution found that the likelihood of a heat wave like this year’s has increased 30-fold since the 19th century. And an attribution study by Britain’s Met Office pointed out that the chances of unprecedented heat waves in India and Pakistan have increased 100-fold due to climate change. The question that needs to be answered is how people who are faced with life-threatening heat will deal with it.
“Almost everyone is affected; only the extent varies,” says Vimal Mishra, a climatologist at the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar in the western state of Gujarat. “People who are less affected [than the others] are those who can afford air conditioning.” The National Disaster Management Authority considers 23 of India’s 28 states as heat sensitive.
Indeed, sales of air conditioners have increased in India since March, especially in urban areas. In Etah, the town closest to Nagla Tulai, the hum of air conditioners drowned out all other noise every time the electricity came on.
“Most houses have air conditioners in this town,” says Devesh Singh, a television journalist who has been covering Etah’s summers for 22 years. Many households in the city steal the necessary electricity from the state electricity companies to avoid paying large bills. They do this by attaching an aluminum hook, called a katia, to the power cables that run through the streets.
In cities across Uttar Pradesh, police conducted daily raids this spring to spot the devices. “Earlier, the raids happened during the day, which allowed people to use electricity at night and remove their katiya in the morning. This year, the police are coming between 2 am and 4 am, while people are sleeping in front of their air conditioners,” says Singh, a journalist. By mid-June, 150 people in Etah were accused of stealing electricity, but the air conditioners were still humming.
Even with record use of air conditioners, the vast majority of Indians still cannot afford them. The country’s annual per capita income is about 9,000 rupees, and even cheap air conditioning would require a quarter of that. Even if you have an AC unit and electricity to boot, whether it’s paid for or stolen, it doesn’t guarantee an escape from the heat. Power outages are common during the summer; they are short in big cities, but more frequent and longer in towns and villages. This year, severe shortages of coal in power plants and huge demand for electricity meant that huge numbers of people had to make do with four hours or less of electricity a day in some of the worst-hit states.
Who can keep cool
Caste, gender and regional location can also influence who gets left out. Indian climate researchers are increasingly concerned about such factors. “Your starting point really determines the kind of capacity you will have to deal with climate risks,” says Chandni Singh, a researcher at the Indian The Institute for Human Settlements, which has been working on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change for 10 years. “There is a huge disparity between villages and within villages.”
For example, in Nagla Tulai, men and old women can seek the breeze outdoors when they want, but other women and girls are expected to spend the daytime hours indoors, where the still and suffocating heat presses down on them like a blanket. To experts, this hardly counts as an adaptation.
“It would be wrong to say that people adapt in these situations. They suffer, basically,” says Mishra. “Meaningful adaptation should reduce suffering, but that doesn’t happen when people are trapped in concrete houses without electricity.”
The men spend most of their time sitting under a large banyan tree and try to ignore the searing heat that surrounds them like a halo. To work, they would have to go to the farms, and that would be murder. Summers have been hot for as long as they can remember, so they traditionally rested when the sun was at its peak and worked the rest of the day. In the last few years, however, their working hours are getting shorter.
“This year we were able to work no more than two hours a day,” Raja Ram, a third-generation farmer, tells me. “The rest of the time, we sit.”
Less work means more deprivation. Even in the years when they worked full-time in tobacco and corn farming, they had to share the income with the landlords who owned the fields. Most people in Nagla Tulai identify as Shakya, which the Uttar Pradesh government categorizes as a “backward” caste. That they do not own the land they cultivate is one of the many inequalities they have faced for generations. Now, heat waves are making their share of the harvest even smaller.
“One thing that is not talked about much is the impact of the landless,” says Chandni Singh. “These are people who are already used to moving their working hours in the summer to earlier in the day, even without climate change. But how far back can you push it? When you have villages experiencing such extreme heat even when the monsoon is late and water levels are dropping, agriculture becomes almost unsustainable as a livelihood. Where does the young man go in the village? You push people to the limit of adaptation. You push people to migrate.”
The men in Nagla Tulai don’t want to leave — not yet. However, they are not so sure about the future. If heat waves cause large-scale migration in India, the researchers believe, it will cause permanent damage to the agricultural sector.
“Migration in India is mostly driven by employment. If these heat waves become more frequent and start early, like this year, farm workers will have to move to cities. They will have to find a non-agricultural job – whatever will enable them to earn money,” says Mishra.
The men fear that a job in a factory or on a construction site, if they are forced to emigrate, will not pay enough to bring their families. But if the heatwaves intensify – in a few days, Etah has recorded temperatures five degrees warmer than the same date last year – they may struggle to raise a family at all. As it is, not many women are willing to marry Nagla Tulai men. Those who get by by retreating to their parents’ home for a few months each year.
Suman Shakya is upset because her husband refused to leave her in her parents’ village this summer. She fears that her children will not survive the summer without a ceiling fan or air conditioning. “They cry all day and all night. One day it’s a rash, the next day it’s an upset stomach, the day after dengue. I feel stuck in a pattern: they get sick, we take them to the hospital, they get sick again,” he tells me, waving a cloth fan to comfort his son.
When her mother got married, she took a handmade fan to her mother-in-law’s house as part of her outfit. Summers were hot, but not deadly, and a sturdy hand fan easily took care of blackouts in the afternoons. Girls looking forward to marriage made their own fans, embroidering their names inside the folds. In 2016, when she herself got married, she wanted an air conditioner and a refrigerator for her dowry. She arrived in Nagla Tulai with neither. “There would be no point,” she says.
In 2011, the local government installed solar panels on every roof in the village. Residents were told that when the panels are fully charged, they will power light bulbs and fans and even charge mobile phones. They later learned that they would need inverters to store the power and batteries to charge the inverters, and that would cost money. “Families who can afford it have three solar-powered fans, one to cool their buffaloes,” says Priyanka Shakya, a 16-year-old girl. Even when fully charged, the solar panels only support the fan for a few hours, so they are kept at night, to be turned on when the children start crying.
Administrators in India are limited to advance warnings before a heat wave and emergency measures in the middle of one. Those measures may include closing schools and construction sites and ending medical leave.
Mishra thinks they could do more. “They can identify vulnerable areas, such as villages and slums, where poor people live who don’t have air conditioning,” he says. “Community centers can be set up, like we have for floods and other disasters, for people to go to cool off. I can have cold water. They can have first aid to treat the symptoms associated with heatstroke.” Even affluent urban neighborhoods need similar shelters for vendors and construction workers who lack protection from the heat, he adds.
In Ahmedabad, where he works, the municipal corporation is offering many of these initiatives as part of its heating action plan, a first in South Asia. It was installed after a heat wave in 2010 claimed 4,462 lives in the city.
“People are not always aware of the symptoms caused by the heat. They go to the hospital as a last resort. It often causes mortality,” says Mishra.
But in Nagla Tulai, Priyanka Shakya is no longer waiting for electricity to come to the village. Her plan is to get married and leave.