India heatwave 2024: Deaths, crop failures and economic impact highlights climate impacts

In his book The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet Jeff Goodell writes; „We simply haven’t come to terms with it, especially in the way I’m describing. No one expects death. In part, it’s easy to believe that the brute forces of nature have been tamed. We live in a technologically advanced world. But because our world is changing so rapidly, so is the scale of the dangers we face. We also cannot understand the urgency.

India has come face to face with that reality in the past few weeks. Its current heat wave, the longest ever and has seen a marathon election, has, at last count, seen 143 recorded deaths and 42,000 people suffering from heat stroke.

The intense heat didn’t seem like a surprise shower on a pleasant afternoon. India witnessed an extreme heat wave in March 2022, the hottest in India since records began 122 years ago, and extreme humid heat in April 2023, when 13 people died of heat stroke in a single day in Navi Mumbai, Maharashtra. More recently, a study by the World Weather Attribution Initiative confirmed that extreme heat often occurs during the pre-monsoon period in South Asia; And two, climate change has played a major role in raising the 2024 April average temperature. Extreme temperatures are now 45 times higher and 0.85°C warmer. In other words, India is not warming up across the board: it is continuing to rise on the back of human activity.

The heat and increased heat experienced by a large part of India has serious ramifications for India’s economy. It is disastrous for the agricultural and farming community. In the past two years, India’s wheat harvest has shrunk due to severe heat waves during March-April. This current heat wave may affect wheat production and also impact the yield of crops like rice and sugar. Not only that, heat affects crop quality. For farmers dealing with the cost of seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs, crop failure can spell disaster in the form of high debt.

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For consumers, this could mean prolonged and uncomfortably high food inflation. Government involvement in imports (facilitating them) or exports (restricting them) may have a very limited impact on prices of staples given how tight supplies have been since last year, and no effect on prices of vegetables. Reports indicate short shelf life and early spoilage in harvested crops such as tomatoes and onions. Milk prices are on the rise and earlier this month, both Amul and Mother Dairy hiked prices in all markets. Groceries account for close to a quarter of total household spending, and those costs are rising, with survey after survey pointing to concerns among middle-class families about how to cope.

None of this, or the other economic consequences of extreme heat, is 'new news’ to the government. The 2021 Climate Transparency Report noted that India’s rice production could fall by 10 to 30 percent and maize production by 25 to 70 percent with a 1-4 degree Celsius temperature increase. The report also warned that extreme heat could make work in various economically important sectors unbearable and dangerous. In 2021, the potential income loss due to reduced labor productivity due to extreme heat—in the service industry, manufacturing, agriculture and construction sectors—is estimated at $159 billion in India in 2021; This is more than 5 percent of the country’s GDP. Although coal reserves are low, electricity demand is already increasing; A Already seen 2022 is the moment of severe power shortage that India will face.

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What is the Modi government’s track record for this clear and present heat threat? At COP26 in 2021, the Prime Minister pledged to reach net zero by 2070. Even today, coal accounts for more than 50 percent of the country’s energy needs. Surely the Prime Minister knows that burning fossil fuels and clearing forests is a recipe for disaster in a country where almost 90 percent of districts are believed to be „at risk” of heat waves.

Wide range of environmental clearances

The NDA government also has the unique distinction of issuing environmental clearances at a pace India has never seen before. Ahead of the ongoing general elections, the Election Commission, after initially refusing, allowed the environment ministry to issue green clearance while the Model Code of Conduct was underway. The Parivesh portal, set up to monitor clearances for major projects, has given environmental clearances to 675 projects this year alone.

In 2023, state environment minister Ashwini Kumar Chaubey told Parliament that the time to issue environmental and coastal clearances has come down from 150 days in 2019 to less than 70 days in 2022. Up to about 180 days. Earlier in the year, the amnesty window, which opened for just six months in March 2017 to clear projects in the novel „violation category”, was converted into a regular provision by a Union environment ministry notification. This window gave earlier approval to more than 100 projects until the Supreme Court stayed the notification in January this year.

A woman washes her face with water to cool off during a hot summer day near India Gate in New Delhi on June 17, 2024. | Photo credit: MONEY SHARMA/AFP

Many of these permits and industrial relationships have a quid pro quo element to them. Take Vedanta Ltd.: The mining conglomerate has been accused of running a secret campaign to allow mining companies to significantly increase production without obtaining new environmental permits. It has been accused repeatedly of environmental violations in mining and oil and gas projects in India, and it has now emerged that Vedanta is the buyer of electoral bonds worth Rs 400.65 crore, according to State Bank of India data. .

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Widespread environmental clearances for large industrial projects are wreaking havoc on India’s climate. Himachal Pradesh has seen four-lane roads torn up in its hills. Unplanned buildings on the banks of the river collapse like Jenga blocks during heavy rains: a vivid example of the damage of excessive and reckless development. Even as the heat subsides across northern India, at the other end of the country, plans are underway to build a $9-billion mega infrastructure project on Great Nicobar Island. It includes a major transshipment terminal, an airport, a township, and a gas and solar power plant, all at the cost of cutting down 13,000 hectares of rainforest.

India’s economy will see severe damage in the face of severe heat waves, with green covers and urban living spaces collapsing under increasing water and electricity demand. Before economic damage comes to lives. At the peak of a dangerously hot summer, public administration is woefully underprepared in its heatwave, starting with the Election Commission’s myopic and criminally evasive decision to hold elections within 44 days.

The current heat wave has caused death and disease in its immediate effects, but disproportionately. The heat disproportionately hits the economically disadvantaged, squeezing access to water, electricity and medical care. India’s poor don’t live in air-conditioned houses and leafy neighborhoods, they live in cramped houses with poor insulation and cooling mechanisms. They do not have pumps that draw water from the womb of the earth to feed and bathe themselves and their family members. Instead, they run behind water tankers and queue in baking heat for a bucket of water. In another part of this apocalyptic scenario, doctors are submerging patients in ice-cold water, even as surgeries are postponed due to water shortages and prolonged power outages.

The focus should now be on dealing with the 'heat emergency’ that many parts of India are facing and trying to provide support, shelter and care to those affected. But what we must not do is pass this by. The government can live with denial, the electorate won’t.

Mithali Mukherjee is Director of Journalism Programs at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. He is a political economy journalist with over two decades of experience in television, print and digital journalism. Mithali has co-founded two start-ups focusing on civil society and financial literacy and gender and climate change.

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