June 16, 2024

Divided by Class: How Heat Waves Expose Socio-Economic Fault Lines

Shirin Akhter, Vijender Singh Chauhan

There is need to ensure safe working conditions, mandatory rest breaks, and access to protective gear for workers in high-temperature environments.

AS the sub-continent boils under extreme heat, Delhi touches 53°C and Nagpur crosses 56°C, deadly heat becomes the fate of the residents. However, like every other calamity, the impacts of these increasingly frequent and intense heat waves in North India are differently felt by different population groups, starkly highlighting the profound socio-economic inequalities that exacerbate the impacts of climate disasters.

Recently in Bihar, the extreme temperatures have led to numerous cases of heat exhaustion and heatstroke among students, with reports of children fainting in schools due to the intense heat. Additionally, the heatwave has resulted in tragic fatalities, including a high school student in Sheikhpura and several polling staff members across the region.

Such events bring up the broader issue of how climate change and rising temperatures disproportionately affect the poor. Vulnerable communities often lack the resources to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat. We argue that the economic status is a primary determinant of an individual's vulnerability to heat waves.

Delhi’s deteriorating air quality has severe impact on low-income gig workers, such as delivery drivers and couriers, who face significantly higher health risks compared with their high-income counterparts. Also the poorer regions, are often the hardest hit, suffering from both direct health impacts and economic losses due to reduced labour productivity and agricultural output.

For example, a study found that in 2021, India lost 167.2 billion potential labour hours due to heat exposure, with significant income losses equivalent to about 5.4 per cent of the National GDP (gross domestic product).  This article examines the unequal effects of heat waves on various socio-economic categories, with a particular focus on the working class and vulnerable populations, emphasising the urgent need for equitable climate policies.

The poor and the marginalised usually live clustered in ghettos, residing in inadequately ventilated homes with lack of access to electricity, water or availability of cooling methods. Moreover, their livelihoods often require them to work outdoors or in non-air-conditioned environments, increasing their exposure to heat-related health risks.

In contrast, wealthier individuals typically have better access to cooling technologies and can afford to stay indoors during extreme heat, or even temporarily relocate to cooler places, reducing their risk. This disparity is reflected in the higher rates of heat-related illnesses and deaths among poorer populations, as they are more likely to face prolonged exposure to high temperatures and have limited access to healthcare.

This issue is further compounded by the urban heat island effect, where densely built-up urban areas, especially poorer neighbourhoods, experience higher temperatures than rural surroundings. The urban heat island effect intensifies the impact of heat waves on low-income communities living in densely populated urban areas with minimal greenery. The lack of vegetation and the high concentration of heat-absorbing materials like concrete and asphalt contribute to significantly higher temperatures in these areas. Residents of these neighbourhoods, already constrained by economic limitations, face additional health risks due to the amplified heat.

About 85% of India’s workforce is informally employed, lacking formal labour protections, access to healthcare, and social security. These workers often endure extreme working conditions without adequate safety measures, significantly increasing their vulnerability to heat-related health problems. The informal nature of their employment means they cannot afford to take breaks or seek medical care without risking their livelihoods.

Occupational exposure further complicates vulnerability for certain groups of workers like construction and agriculture workers, whose work involve significant outdoor labour and prolonged exposure to high temperatures. Workers in these fields, predominantly from marginalised communities, lack protective measures and adequate rest periods, heightening their risk of heat stress and related health issues. Socio-economic status and employment conditions thus intersect to amplify climate disaster impacts.

Disparity in healthcare access exacerbates immediate heat wave effects and contributes to long-term health inequities, adversely impacting the income-generating capabilities of marginalised groups over the long term.

A study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) finds that limited healthcare access exacerbates the health impacts of heat waves on marginalised communities, suggesting the need for targeted healthcare investments. However, underserved groups like the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), minorities, women, the elderly, and other low-income groups often have limited access to medical facilities and services. This delay in treatment for heat-related illnesses can lead to severe health outcomes.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the informal sector’s lack of social protection and rights at work further exacerbates these issues, making it imperative to address these vulnerabilities through comprehensive policy measures.

The adverse effects extend beyond working and living conditions, profoundly impacting the educational experiences of students in publicly funded institutions. These schools, colleges, and universities often lack the infrastructure necessary to provide a conducive learning environment during extreme heat. Without adequate air conditioning and proper ventilation, classrooms become unbearably hot, impeding students' ability to concentrate and absorb information. This situation disproportionately affects students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who are reliant on public educational facilities.

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures is not just a matter of discomfort; it can lead to severe health issues such as heat stress, exacerbating absenteeism and disrupting the continuity of learning. Heat waves particularly impair cognitive function, which reduces students' academic performance. The lack of cooling facilities in publicly funded institutions means that during heat waves, students are more likely to miss school, further widening the educational gap between different socio-economic groups.

The problem is magnified during examination periods. The stress and physical discomfort of sitting for exams in high temperatures can lead to lower scores and increased failure rates. This adds an additional layer of disadvantage to students from poorer backgrounds, perpetuating the cycle of educational and socio-economic inequality.

It is clear that the learning and knowledge accumulation conditions, exacerbated by inadequate infrastructure and extreme weather, contribute significantly to the widening of the inter-generational wedge, locking disadvantaged communities in cycles of poverty and limited opportunity.

As temperatures soar, district administrations, and the India Meteorological Department (IMD issue warnings to ensure safety of residents, interestingly these warnings also show the inequalities we live with; for instance, most common of these directives ask people to avoid the “Sun between 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM, wear light-coloured, loose, and cotton clothes, drink water regularly and keep hydrated with homemade beverages, contact a doctor immediately when feeling unwell and to keep the house cool using curtains and shutters. “Almost none of these measures can be seamlessly adopted by poor, working class people.

These directives also advocate “avoiding strenuous activities, avoiding cooking during the afternoon, etc.”  These recommendations, while beneficial, need to be tailored to address the realities faced by different socio-economic groups in metropolitan areas. Policies and interventions should consider these constraints and provide more accessible, inclusive solutions. This might include creating shaded areas for street vendors, ensuring water supply in slums, improving healthcare access, and supporting the construction of heat-resilient housing. Ensuring safe working conditions, mandatory rest breaks, and access to protective gear for workers in high-temperature environments. Providing mobile health clinics, and subsidising healthcare costs for the poorest workers, along with strengthening emergency response systems to provide rapid assistance during heat waves, especially in the underserved areas.

Investing in housing improvements for low-income communities with adequate provisions of water and electricity, better insulation and ventilation. Creating urban green spaces and increasing tree cover in poor neighbourhoods to mitigate the urban heat island effect. Extending social security benefits to informal workers, including unemployment insurance, health insurance, and pensions, providing a safety net during climate-related disruptions. Investing in climate-resilient school infrastructure, ensuring that learning environments remain safe and comfortable during extreme heat. Implementing heat action plans in schools to protect students’ health and well-being.

Understanding the differential impacts of heat waves on various social categories is crucial for developing equitable climate policies. Addressing these disparities involves improving infrastructure, ensuring access to healthcare, enhancing housing conditions, and implementing targeted interventions for vulnerable populations.

Equitable action on climate change can significantly reduce the adverse effects on marginalised communities, fostering resilience and sustainability in the face of increasing climate threats. By prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable, including the informally employed, we can create a more just and resilient society capable of withstanding the challenges posed by a changing climate.


Courtesy: Newsclick


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