How heatwaves affect India’s labor-based economy

As monsoons arrive in India, the majority of the population finally rejoices as the rain brings some respite from the extreme heatwaves. But we must not forget that this relief is temporary, next year the situation will repeat itself and the temperatures might even soar higher than this year’s highs. According to the reports of UK’s Metrological office extreme heatwaves in India will occur at a frequency of 3 years, compared to the previous time frame of 312 years. The study concluded that the risk of heatwaves in April-May has increased by 100, and this number is expected to increase by 275.

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Other than the obvious health impacts, the heatwaves will seriously hamper India’s economy. According to a paper by the global consulting firm McKinsey, the increase in heat and humidity could put 2.4% - 4.5% of the GDP at risk, monetarily the value translates between 150-250 billion dollars. India’s GDP is still heavily dependent on agriculture and construction, both of these require people to work outside and expose themselves to heat. In the report McKinsey mentioned that as of 2017 heat exposed work constitutes 50% of the GDP, and employs 75% of the labor workforce which is around 380 million people. Even by 2030, 40% of India’s GDP will be dependent on heat exposed work. Climate change threatens the livelihood of this vulnerable population, and will put dent in India’s GDP.

Another study by International Labor Organization found that South Asian countries are most vulnerable to heat stress and lead to significant loss of working hours. The report said the South Asian region “lost an average of four per cent of total working hours in 1995 (the equivalent of 19 million full-time jobs). In 2030, the impact of heat stress on labor productivity is expected to be even more pronounced. In particular, up to 5.3 per cent of total working hours (the equivalent of 43 million full-time jobs) are projected to be lost.” The total working hour loss due to extreme temperature is expected to touch nearly six per cent by 2030, the ILO estimated. That will be equivalent to the loss of 3.4 crore full-time jobs, it added. It said that “labor productivity losses caused by heat stress are concentrated in subregions with already precarious labor market conditions, such as high rates of vulnerable employment and working poverty. Additionally, heat stress is more common in agriculture and construction — two sectors that are characterized by a high level of informality. The challenges of heat stress could widen existing gender gaps in the world of work, notably by making working conditions worse for the many women employed in subsistence agriculture.” 

Increased vehicular emissions and air conditioning usage, rampant concretisation and loss of natural vegetation accelerates the creation and exacerbation of the “urban heat island effect”, by which urbanised areas experience higher temperatures than outlying areas. The labor force living in urban areas have to live in small unventilated rooms due to high real housing costs. Building materials, and in particular roofing types, heighten heat absorption. In Mumbai, for instance, 1.02 million households use heat-absorbent GI/Metal/Asbestos sheets for roofing according to data from the 2011 Census. When coupled with poor ventilation, and improper orientation and design, it results in prolonged night-time heat that has dire health implications. The human body is not able to cool down and recover from daytime heat exposure, disrupting sleep patterns and aggravating existing health conditions that raise mortality risk. Ultimately not only does it decrease working hours but also puts stress on the health care system 

Long term plans are needed to build resilience against heat stress and preserve productivity. Passive design techniques, alternate environmentally friendly material and climatologically suited spatial orientation should be mandated by regulation. Indoor air pollution, which can exacerbate heat, should be reduced by improving cooking fuels. Development plans should set targets to increase green spaces and regulations should mandate the development of various typologies of urban forests – parks, green roofs – for adaptation benefits. Implementing the National Urban Transport Policy, which prioritizes non-motorized transport and associated infrastructure, along with high-quality public transport that uses cleaner and efficient fuels, needs to be accelerated in cities. Dangerous heat islands form in and around landfills. This arises from methane production from unsegregated waste or landfill fires and pollution from poorly managed sites. Proper solid waste management at source, including strict enforcement of segregation and disposal, warrants immediate action in cities.

Written By:

Jyotirmoy Gupta

Jyotirmoy Gupta is an engineer who later discovered his passion in photography and writing. His interests range from cinema and art history to sustainability and economics. He has worked with various newspapers as a photojournalist and video creator. He also loves writing short stories. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur.

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