India’s unusually severe heat wave has killed more than 200 people and made tens of thousands ill so far. Amid these extreme weather conditions, there are concerns about the country’s marginalised people.

In New Delhi alone, the mercury climbed to nearly 53 degrees Celsius (127 Fahrenheit), making it the hottest summer in 120 years.(Adnan Abidi/REUTERS )

A nationwide heat wave that began in May has brought unprecedented temperatures to northern and western India .

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The India Meteorological Department issued red alerts at the end of May warning about the “very high likelihood” that many people would experience heat illness and heat stroke, and urging “extreme care” for vulnerable individuals.

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Despite the heat wave, however, Kanchan Devi is forced to make her living outdoors, baking bricks in the state of Haryana.

Temperature warnings do little for informal laborers such as Devi. The twenty-something-year-old only has a piece of cloth wrapped around her head to protect her from the sun.

Devi, who belongs to the Dalit community — a historically marginalized group from the lowest level of India’s centuries-old discriminatory caste hierarchy — squats for hours at a time as she works at the furnace to produce bricks. Last month, Devi experienced dizziness at work during the heatwave and was subsequently hospitalized due to low blood pressure.

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‘Risking our lives’

A report by the Center for Labour Research and Action found that over 50% of the workers at the 21 brick kilns it surveyed were Dalits.

“Our lives are always at risk,” said Raheb Rajput, a Dalit construction worker in New Delhi, who told DW that he lost his cousin to the heat wave in May. “It is getting hotter with every passing year.”

Nearly 25,000 people are believed to have experienced heatstroke during India’s summer season, which runs from March through May, the news website ThePrint reported ,citing government data.

The National Alliance of People’s Movements, a civil rights organization, demanded that this year’s extreme heat be declared a disaster under India’s Disaster Management Act, 2005.

Is caste a heat vulnerability factor in India?

Several studies and media reports highlight the plight of workers in the unorganized sector, which represents a huge chunk of the Indian labor force, especially during sweltering summers — but caste has rarely been recognized as a factor that contributes to heat vulnerability.

Experts say socioeconomic factors can have an impact on people’s vulnerability to heat. A study by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) revealed that occupational heat exposure exacerbates social inequalities.

“Research suggests that caste-based division of labor continues to exist in India’s modern market economy,” said Arpit Shah, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru, one of India’s most-populous cities.

Shah’s ongoing research explores the relationship between caste and occupational heat exposure.

“Construction workers and sanitation workers are disproportionately likely to be from the marginalized caste groups. Since these occupations require more outdoor work, there is greater risk because of heat waves,” Shah said.

By some accounts, 90% of the workforce in India is employed in the informal sector. A massive proportion of the workers in the informal sector belongs to the Dalit community, Scheduled Tribes and other “lower” caste groups, according to a 2020 report by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

Challenges faced by brick kiln workers

Most laborers at brick kilns are migrants who live in shanties constructed by stacking up bricks on top of each other, with tin sheets or tarpaulin used for the roof.

At times, the migrant workers stay with their families, including children, at the site of the kiln in severely hot temperatures.

Devi said she slept in the field at night. “It is hotter inside our tin-roofed shanty,” she said.

Most of the shanties lack basic amenities such as fans and light bulbs. Many of the workers DW spoke with said they arranged for fans on their own.

Some employers fail to provide even drinking water. Laborers are forced to search for water in nearby areas, and this scarcity also puts them at risk.

Gulrez Shah Azhar, a former researcher with the Public Health Foundation of India, said heat vulnerability could be exacerbated by people’s individual environments.

“Imagine living in a shanty,” he said. “There’s no separate bathroom or running water supply enabling privacy to take a shower. All of these factors add to how vulnerable a person is to heat.”

The mercury’s rise makes access to cooling and shade a crucial heat adaptation strategy, but most of the people from the Dalit community DW spoke with did not own air coolers — let alone air conditioners.

The lower-caste and tribal households are also reported to have 10%-30% less access to electricity.

Pathway for inclusive policy to deal with heat waves

The National Disaster Management Authority adopted the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and released its plan in 2016. The initial plan considered only the elderly and disabled as vulnerable groups to natural disasters. However, in 2019, it was revised to include Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in this category.

“The Heat Action Plans formulated at state, city and district levels do not take the impact on vulnerable caste groups into account,” said Beena Johnson, the general secretary of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

A study by the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think tank found that “nearly all Heat Action Plans are poor at identifying and targeting vulnerable groups.”

Mukul Sharma, the author of the book “Caste and Nature,” said the government only provided data for deaths caused by heat, but disaggregating the numbers would most likely reveal that many of the victims are Dalits.

“We are living in a different time, for all of us,” Azhar said. “Heat is the greatest inequality issue of our time.”