The Sunday Magazine

'We worked until our breath gave out': The political and environmental roots of India's deadly heat wave

Delhi-based journalist and author Nilanjana Roy talks about what life is like at 48 degrees Celsius and how difficult it is to get climate change on the national agenda.
Indian migrant shepherd Ranabhai stands amongst his dead sheep at a field in Ranagadh village. Cities across northern India have been sweltering with temperatures above 47 Celsius (116.6 Fahrenheit). According to a local veterinarian, approximately 60 sheep have died due to extreme heat and deprivation of water. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

It's been a summer of extremes in the Northern Hemisphere, with unprecedented heat across the Arctic and Europe. But nowhere has climate change been more acutely felt than in India, where entire cities are feared to soon become too hot or too dry to be habitable.

In the capital city of Delhi, the temperature in June reached a record-breaking 48 degrees Celsius — or 118 degrees Fahrenheit. 

You have a lot of people saying, 'Look, we worked until our breath gave out.'- Nilanjana Roy
Nilanjana Roy is a columnist for the Financial Times, and previously reported for the International Herald Tribune. She is also the author of two award-winning fantasy novels and a founding member of PEN in Delhi. (Luc de Golbery)

Intense heat waves have killed more than 100 people across India this summer alone, and they are expected to get worse in the years ahead.

Massive droughts have hit half the country's territory, with hundreds of villages abandoned for lack of water. Chennai, the country's sixth-largest city and home to almost 10 million people, ran out of water in June. 

Nilanjana Roy is an author and journalist based in Delhi who recently wrote about that city's record-breaking heat. She spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Connie Walker about how the climate crisis in India has been exacerbated by a political climate of repression and rising nationalism that has made it difficult — if not outright dangerous — to speak openly about the impact of climate change. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

What did it feel like to live through that kind of heat? 

The hottest places in India, historically in Rajasthan, if you walked out on the street, it felt like smoke practically coming off the tarmac. And when you breathe, your lungs burn. When you touch something, you have to move your hand almost immediately because it's that hot. Your body can withstand it, but your mind isn't prepared to accept the reality of constantly moving through that kind of heat. 

I did walk around the city a bit at the height of the heatwave, and I found that it's relatively easy for the affluent to protect themselves with air conditioning or simply to retreat to a cooler place for the holidays. But the ones who are really terribly affected are people who are out all day because they have to work on construction sites or road workers. It was heartbreaking hearing men and women who are used to this saying, 'We can't cope. We have nosebleeds. We find that we are doing four hours of work and fainting when we're used to doing an eight- or 10-hour shift.'

Indian people walk near Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Presidential Palace, under conditions of heavy air pollution in New Delhi on May 13, 2019. New Delhi suffered a rare summer air pollution alert Monday as dust storms and heat over northern India took smog to hazardous levels. (NOEMI CASSANELLI/AFP/Getty Images)

The other problem that we had was that ... pollution never truly spiked in summer. You have a lot of people saying that, 'Look, we worked until our breath gave out' or 'We worked until we had to stop because we were coughing so much.' 

What can they do for relief when the heat is that unrelenting?

I think a lot of it has to do with whether the government actually takes steps to see climate change as a serious problem. Cutting back on pollution and polluting industries would go a long way towards helping. You can't change the heat. You can't change the temperature, but you can at least try to build the basics in — create better shelters. Better transport was something that almost everybody mentioned, because of the grind of getting through the day and then having to walk or cycle back for anything from 10 to 30 kilometres back home. 

We see it as an act of God coming at us. And that mindset has to change.- Nilanjana Roy

In all of these situations, whether we're looking at drought in Maharashtra or whether we're looking at Chennai's water crisis — the water crisis was something that environmentalists in Chennai had been warning them about for years. They'd been seeing that we are building too carelessly, too recklessly, in the name of development. We're basically blocking the lakes and the river beds which are the arteries of a city. 

I don't think that we see this as a government problem or a political problem. We see it as an act of God coming at us. And that mindset has to change. 

Indian residents use hoses to collect drinking water from a tanker truck during a hot summer day in the low-income neighbourhood of Sanjay Camp in New Delhi on June 12, 2019. (NOEMI CASSANELLI/AFP/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Modi has pledged to end the water crisis. He created a new water ministry and promised to clean up rivers and improve access to clean drinking water. How well has he delivered on these promises? 

In the last four to five years, I think it's been much more an intention … but in these five years there's been very little change. For example, the Clean Ganga campaign. A lot was made of it, but at the end of the day that river, which is sacred to most Hindu Indians, is still as polluted as ever. 

What we really need is to tackle pollution at the source. What we really need to do is to go back to traditional water harvesting methods. We need to also tackle the amount of corporate encroachment that we're seeing on forests and rivers. There needs to be an awareness that we can't just hand over India's precious resources to a few corporations. But it's not been easy for people to come up with these very natural criticisms. 

How receptive has this government been to hearing the expertise of environmental organizations or activists? 

The sense we're getting is not encouraging. I spoke to a few people who pointed out that Greenpeace, the environmental organization, had tried to raise an alarm about the dangers of coal mining. What has happened as a consequence is that Greenpeace's offices, many of them have been shuttered across the country, and one of their activists was briefly detained at the airport. That tends to send out a signal to other organizations that they should not speak up. 

How openly have journalists been able to talk about the climate crisis or the government's response? 

To begin with, I think most newspaper editors see pollution and see an immediate water crisis as a priority, and those are reported. But there's been relatively little interest in climate change as a topic. It's almost always secondary to whatever's happening in the political news of the day. 

In this picture taken on June 4, 2019, an Indian boatman walks amid boats on the dried bed of a lake at Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, on the eve of World Environment Day. Because of less monsoon rain last year and current heatwave conditions, the Nalsarovar Bird Sanctuary, which attracts thousands of migratory birds every year, has dried up. (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

The second part of it is that the Indian media itself has changed substantially over the last five years. It's more corporate-owned. It's very pro-government. It's a very difficult environment in 2019 for a lot of journalists across the Indian media. They find themselves at risk if they speak up. One of the most chilling of threats for journalists on the beat is for them to be called anti-national – the suggestion that by talking about very real threats and crises, they are lowering the image of the country in the eyes of the international world. I think that in itself is silencing people. 

How much do you think this crackdown can be attributed to Modi's particular brand of political populism or nationalism? 

We've always had Indian governments at loggerheads with the media. We have a long tradition of fighting back at censorship, and various governments have done their best to bring in national security acts. But the present government … they do have an immense amount of not just corporate backing, but the popular support for Prime Minister Modi is tremendous. We also have a fairly weak political opposition. And so I think that's added up to a scenario where it's very easy for the government to bring in a lot of national security acts that in effect make people very cautious about anything that they want to say. 

We've talked about the government response so far, but what about the larger public? How much are people actually linking what they're experiencing to climate change?

I think that awareness has built up very rapidly over the last year. It started with coastal floods and people are beginning to say, 'We're used to drastic monsoons or terrible summers but what's happening here is different. It's not part of our living memory.' I think for the first couple of years when climate change hits any country, particularly one as large as ours, all you're doing is trying to cope, trying to live each season out. 

We are literally changing not just people's lives but people's bodies, and the government has not at this point paid a political cost for ignoring climate change.- Nilanjana Roy

But over time – for example, in Delhi, when we realized that pollution was shifting from being an external force to being the weather, really, that's when you start to sit back and think. You've had everything from citizens banding together to try to save trees, or a much sharper awareness over things like composting and home water harvesting, green homes, the organic farmers movement. A lot of that is exploding.

But we are still yet to adapt to the idea that this is actually a gigantic corporate problem as well. We're not asking yet for enough accountability and enough change from corporations and from the government. 

Indian villagers take buckets down a well running dry to collect drinking water at Padal village of the district of Samba, some 45 km from Jammu, on June 2, 2019. Temperatures passed 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) in northern India as an unrelenting heatwave triggered warnings of water shortages and heatstroke. (RAKESH BAKSHI/AFP/Getty Images)

How much did the climate related issues that India is facing factor in the country's recent elections? 

Not at all. It was there in some way on the agenda of various political parties, but more as a virtuous pious wish than anything else. I think it was an opportunity that the opposition missed. They could have picked up both the economy and climate change and made people see how deeply this affects their lives. We've been talking so far about work or about withstanding the heat, but people's lifespan expectancies are changing as well. Now, a non-smoker is at about the same risk as smokers of dying of lung cancer. We are literally changing not just people's lives but people's bodies, and the government has not at this point paid a political cost for ignoring climate change.

I think that the next two years, what's going to be crucial is really the manufacturing of that political will of allowing people to be angry about what they are actually suffering on the ground and I can see that beginning to build. But we're not there yet. 

Do you have hope that that will happen in time to make the changes that are needed?

Honestly, the more popular this government becomes, the more that hope recedes. If it's keeping its core voters happy with other things, then it's going to be fine. But we have two things in the country that are running into serious trouble. One of them is the economy; one of them is the climate. And at some point, you can't ignore these things. They're at your doorstep. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above. 


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