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No power, no fans, no AC: The villagers fighting to survive India’s deadly heatwaves


Suman Shakya wanted me to touch the concrete wall of her bedroom, where her one-year-old son lay, sweating profusely. It burned my hands like a hot pan. “Now imagine sitting in front of a hot pot in this weather just making a roast for the whole family,” she said.

The outside temperature is 44 °C (111 °F). My throat is dry and my head is spinning. Sweat ran down my face, seeped into my eyes, and blurred my vision.

Shakya lives in rural Nagla Tulai in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where the heat has been unbearable recently. The villagers here have been enduring hot summers, but these years have tested their strength.

Divya, 20, prepares meals at home in the sweltering heat
Divya, 20, prepares a meal at her home.
Somia Candelwald

This year, after a harsh winter, temperatures have been rising since March. In mid-May, it reached 49°C (120°F), the highest in India in 122 years. Since May, local news reports have attributed more than 50 deaths to the record heat.

At the end of April, when daytime temperatures exceeded 45°C (113°F), most of Nagla Tulai’s residents sought rescue from the hot winds blowing outside. Since the first alarming temperatures in northwest India, the local government has been advising people not to go out in the sun if it helps. But Nagla Tulai is one of the few Indian villages that is not yet electrified. That means its more than 150 homes are without fans, coolers and air conditioners.

Instead, the women of Nagla Tulai bring their cooking skills to the roof. They sat there for hours, stuffing fire into their earthen stoves and keeping them burning even as the sun spewed fire at them from above. “You can’t even shake the sweat off your face; it wets your hands and ruins the roast,” Shakya said.

cause and effect

Climate change is exacerbating heatwaves in South Asia that are no longer an issue.This year alone, two new studies have explored these connections. A report by World Weather Attribution found that heatwaves like this year have increased 30-fold since the 19th century. An attribution study by the Met Office found that climate change has increased the likelihood of unprecedented heatwaves in India and Pakistan by a factor of 100. The next question to answer is how people facing life-threatening heat will respond.

“Almost everyone is affected; it’s just to varying degrees,” said Vimal Mishra, a climate scientist at the Gandhinagar Institute of Technology in the western Indian state of Gujarat. “The less affected [than the others] It’s those who can afford air conditioning. India’s National Disaster Management Authority has listed 23 of India’s 28 states as vulnerable to heatwaves. 

Raja Ram, 97, fanned herself with a handmade fan
Raja Ram, 97, fanned himself with a handmade fan at his home in Nagla Tulai.
Somia Candelwald

In fact, air conditioner sales in India have soared since March, especially in urban areas. In Etah, the closest city to Nagla Tulai, every time the electricity is turned on, the hum of the air conditioner drowns out all other noises.

“Most of the houses in this town are air-conditioned,” said Devesh Singh, a TV reporter who has been covering Etah’s summer for 22 years. Many households in the city steal essential electricity from the state-owned power company to avoid paying high bills. They do this by attaching an aluminum hook called a katia to a power cable running through the street.

This spring, in various cities in Uttar Pradesh, the police conducted daily raids to find the contraptions. “Earlier, the raids took place during the day, which allowed people to use electricity at night and have their katia removed first thing in the morning. This year, the police have been coming between 2am and 4am while people And fell asleep in front of the air conditioner,” reporter Singh said. By mid-June, 150 people in Eta had been charged with electricity theft, but the air conditioners kept humming.

Telegraph poles filmed in Eta, India. Many people steal electricity at night by connecting wires to utility poles.

Even with the use of air conditioners hitting a record high, the vast majority of Indians still cannot afford them. The country’s annual per capita income is about 9,000 rupees, and even cheap air conditioners can account for a quarter of that. Even if you have an AC unit and the electricity to run it, whether paid or stolen, there’s no guarantee you’ll be safe from the heat. Power outages are common in summer; they are short-lived in big cities, but more frequent and persistent in towns and villages. This year, a severe shortage of coal at power stations and a huge demand for electricity means that large numbers of people in some of the hardest-hit states have had to scrape by on four hours or less of electricity a day.

who can keep calm

Caste, gender and regional location also influence who keeps calm. Climate researchers in India are increasingly focusing on these factors. “Your starting point really determines your ability to deal with climate risks,” said Chandni Singh, a researcher at the Centre for Indian Studies. Human Settlements Institute, which has been working on climate change vulnerability and adaptation research for 10 years. “There are huge differences between and within villages.”

People sit under the banyan tree next to the temple to escape the heat.
People sit under the banyan tree next to the temple to escape the heat.
A woman lies on a handmade fan
A woman lies on a handmade fan

In Nagla Tulai, for example, men and older women can always seek the breeze outdoors, but other women and girls spend their days indoors, where the still, suffocating heat presses down on them like a blanket. For experts, this hardly counts as an adaptation.

“It would be wrong to say that people in this situation adapt. Basically, they suffer,” Mishra said. “Meaningful adaptations should reduce suffering, but that doesn’t happen when people are stuck in concrete houses without electricity.”

The men spent most of their time sitting under a large banyan tree, trying to ignore the scorching heat that surrounded them like a halo. In order to work, they have to go to the farm, and that would be murder. Summer has been hot for as long as they can remember, so they traditionally rest when the sun is at its peak and work the rest of the day. However, over the past few years, their working hours have been getting shorter.

“This year, we don’t work more than two hours a day,” Raja Ram, a third-generation farmer, told me. “The rest of the time, we sit.”

Less work means more deprivation. Even in the years when they grew tobacco and corn full-time, they had to split the income with the landowners who owned the fields. Most people in Nagla Tulai identify themselves as Sakya, which the Uttar Pradesh government classifies as a “backward” caste.They don’t own the land they farm is one of the many inequalities they have faced for generations. Now, the heat wave is making their share of the harvest even smaller.

A couple are working in the field. People in the area had to postpone their workdays until the worst of the heat had passed.

Somia Candelwald

“One thing that not a lot of people talk about is the impact of landless,” Chandni Singh said. “We’re talking about people who are used to shifting their summer work hours to earlier in the day, even without climate change. But how much can you move it back? When the monsoons are delayed and the water table is falling, when your village looks In such extreme heat, farming is almost impossible to survive. Where are the young people in the village? You are pushing people to adapt to the limit. You are pushing people to migrate.”

The people of Nagla Tulai don’t want to leave – not yet. However, they are not sure about the future. Researchers believe that if heatwaves cause mass migration in India, it will be caused by lasting damage to the agricultural sector.

“Immigration in India is mainly driven by employment. If these heatwaves occur more frequently and start earlier, as they have this year, farm workers will have to move to cities. They will have to look for off-farm employment – ​​as long as they can make money,” Mishra said.

Men fear that if they are forced to relocate, jobs in factories or construction sites will not be enough to pay them to bring their families. But if the heatwave intensifies — within a few days, ETA recorded temperatures 5 degrees warmer than this time last year — they might struggle to start a family in the first place. In fact, not many women are willing to marry a man in Nalatura. Those who do cope by retreating to their parents’ house for a few months each year.

Suman Shakya, mother of two, holds her children at home.
Suman Shakya, mother of two, holds her children at home.
Somia Candelwald

Suman Shakya was upset that her husband refused to send her to her parents’ village this summer. She worries that her kids won’t be able to get through the summer without ceiling fans or air conditioning. “They were crying all day and all night. One day it was a rash, the next day it was an upset stomach, the next day it was dengue fever. I felt like I was stuck in a pattern: they got sick, we took them to the hospital and they got sick again ,” she told me, waving a cloth fan to comfort her son.

When her mother got married, she brought a handmade fan to her husband’s house to make a dowry. Summer is hot but not fatal, and a sturdy hand fan is an easy fix for afternoon power outages. Girls expecting to get married make their own fans and embroider their names inside the pleats. When she got married in 2016, all she wanted was an air conditioner and a refrigerator. Neither of her made it to Nagratulai. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

In 2011, the local government installed solar panels on every roof in the village. Residents have been told that once fully charged, the panels will power light bulbs and fans and even charge phones. They later found out they needed an inverter to store power and a battery to charge the inverter, and those things cost money. Priyanka Shakya, a 16-year-old girl, said: “The affordable home runs three fans with solar power and one to cool the buffalo.” Even when fully charged, the solar panels can only support the fans for a few hours, So they can stay until the night and turn on when the kids start crying.

ceiling fan
A small ceiling fan stirs warm air on the left and solar panels on the roof, on the right
solar panels on home roof

Fans running with solar panels for hours were not in use because the sky was overcast and the panels couldn’t charge.

Managers in India have limited themselves to advance warning before the heatwave and emergency measures in the middle. Those measures could include closing schools and construction sites and canceling doctors’ leave.

Mishra thinks they can do more. “They can identify vulnerable areas, such as villages and slums, inhabited by poor people without air conditioning,” he said. “Community centers, such as the ones we have for floods and other disasters, can be built for people to go and cool down. They can drink cold water. They can do first aid for symptoms related to heat stroke.” He added that even in wealthy cities Communities need to provide similar shelters for suppliers and construction workers who lack heat protection.

In Ahmedabad, where he works, the municipal corporation offers many of these initiatives as part of its first heating action plan in South Asia. They put it in place after a heat wave in 2010 claimed the lives of 4,462 people in the city.

Rajaram, 97, sleeps under tree on hot day
Rajaram, 97, slept under a tree on a hot day.
Somia Candelwald

“People don’t always know what symptoms the heat can cause. They go to the hospital as a last resort. It usually leads to death,” Mishra said.

But in Nagla Tulai, Priyanka Shakya no longer waits for the village to get electricity. Her plan was to get married and leave.

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