Representational Image.

(Anindya Chattopadhyay/BCCL)

When we complain about the terrible summer heat, even as most of our days involve tapping away on our laptops from our air-conditioned offices or homes, it’s easy to lose touch with reality. We forget that there exists a world outside those comfortable walls — a world where a larger part of our country’s population is toiling away in the Sun, in spite of the punishing heat.

The summer of 2022 saw an unprecedented rise in mercury levels, registering record highs in daytime temperatures across India. It is common knowledge by now that one of the causes for this human-induced climate change.

Recently, the UK’s Met Office conducted a study wherein it assessed that the spell of record-breaking temperatures in India may occur every three years now, instead of the previous time frame of 312 years. Its findings suggested that “human influence has increased the likelihood of extreme April-May temperature anomalies by a factor of about 100. By the end of the century, the likelihood is estimated to increase by a factor of 275, relative to the natural climate”.

And while this is going to impact our lives in every conceivable aspect — from our health to energy and transportation — one lesser-thought-about angle is the effect of this unparalleled heat on India’s growth and GDP.

With PM Narendra Modi’s vision of turning India into a 5 trillion dollar economy by the year 2024-2025, the Budget 2022-23 has further provided a strong impetus for growth. The capital expenditure has been stepped up sharply by over 35%, from Rs 5.54 lakh crore to Rs 7.50 Lakh crore in the current fiscal year. This outlay, which is approximately 2.9% of our GDP, is slated to boost economic activity, according to the Employment Situation in New India.

But we may be failing to consider a vital factor: the impact of climate change-induced heatwaves on the welfare and working conditions of the labour class and, subsequently, the country’s economic growth.

Vendors during a hot summer day at Koyambedu in Chennai on Sunday. (C Suresh Kumar/BCCL)

Vendors during a hot summer day at Koyambedu in Chennai on Sunday.

(C Suresh Kumar/BCCL)

Daily wagers compelled to toil away in the unbearable heat to earn their living don’t just have an unpleasant work environment. Their homes, too, are situated in areas that provide little ventilation or comfort. And yet, a considerable part of our nation’s GDP relies on the economically vulnerable shoulders of these workers.

Until 2017, approximately 50% of our GDP relied on work that involved exposure to heat, a 2020 McKinsey Global Institute paper suggested. And estimates indicate that by 2030, nearly 40% of India’s economy will still depend on heat-exposed work — putting India’s economy at the mercy of climate change shocks.

The McKinsey study also stated that “an increase in lost labour hours due to rising heat and humidity could put approximately 2.5-4.5% of GDP at risk by 2030 — equivalent to roughly $150-250 billion”.

Another study published by researchers from UK’s Duke University in December 2021 indicated that if temperatures and humidity rise due to climate change, alternatives for shifting outdoor labour to cooler hours will dwindle dramatically, resulting in considerable global labour losses. The annual economic losses from lost productivity might reach an estimated $1.6 trillion (Rs 1.6 lakh crores) if global temperatures rose 2°C above the current levels, it said.

Worldwide, heat stress is expected to reduce total working hours by 2.2% (equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs) and global GDP by US$2,400 billion in 2030, according to a 2019 study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) titled ‘Working on a warmer planet – The impact of heat stress on labour productivity and decent work’.

And India, the South Asian country most affected by heatwaves, having already lost 4.3% of working hours (the equivalent of 19 million full-time jobs) in 1995, is projected to lose 5.8% of working hours (the equivalent of 43 million full-time jobs) in 2030 due to heat stress.

The ILO report also noted that India’s agricultural and construction sectors would be affected most, with millions of migrant workers being impacted by the heat.

Experts think that what India presently needs is a concrete way of recording the precise extent of the damage caused by heat spells and a way to protect people from said heat.

Not to mention, now would be a good time to boost and maybe even rethink our climate action goals, as climate change is no longer a distant threat hanging over our heads but a reality that has already begun to impact us.


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