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Workers carry sacks of wheat for sifting at a grain mill on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, in this May 16 2022 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE
Workers carry sacks of wheat for sifting at a grain mill on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, in this May 16 2022 file photo. Picture: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE

Nagendra Yadav has worked without a shirt in a stuffy room at a fabric printing factory near India’s industrial hub of Ahmedabad for years, but this summer the rising heat drove him to despair.

With May temperatures hovering above 40°C for more than two weeks in the region, and little respite from the heat since, the 32-year-old said his workplace with no fans or air-conditioning has become a “furnace”.

“Our endurance is tested every day,” said Yadav. “The factory owner has air-conditioning in his office, but there is not even a fan on the factory floor where we work. The shift is for 12 hours. Some of us fall sick, take a day off, lose wages but then come back here. We have no choice.”

Many Indian cities recorded their highest average temperatures this summer, breaching century-old records, with multiple heatwave alerts announced by local administrations.

With the average global temperature having warmed about 1.2ºC above that of pre-industrial times, such heat waves in South Asia are 30 times more likely, say scientists.

In India, almost 323-million people are at high risk from extreme heat and  lack of cooling equipment, according to a report issued in May by Sustainable Energy for All,  a UN-backed organisation working on energy access.

Millions of workers like Yadav toil in small manufacturing units in sheds, cramped factories or dilapidated buildings with poor ventilation, no fans and no water coolers.

The Covid pandemic’s economic fallout means manufacturers are less likely to invest in heat-beating measures while workers work longer hours to meet targets, putting their health at risk during heat waves and forcing many to take time off, unions say.

Furthermore, rising temperatures are leading to power cuts in industrial hubs, compounding the hardship for many factory workers, according to the Central Industrial Trade Union (CITU).

“When manufacturing stops in a factory and hours of work reduce, wages are cut,” said Arun Mehta, general secretary of the CITU in Gujarat state, where Yadav’s factory is located. “There is fatigue, sickness, no money and despair everywhere.”

Calls for change

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has categorised 23 of India’s 28 states, along with about 100 cities and districts, as being at risk of  extreme heat. Nineteen states have already developed their own heat action plans. Others are in following suit.

Anup Kumar Srivastava, a senior scientist with the NDMA working on heatwaves and drought, said the authority had issued guidelines to help workers — from ensuring availability of drinking water and health facilities to changing working hours.

“The reality of summers is not going to change and the key is to be prepared and effectively manage the situation when temperatures soar,” he said.

Yet unions and activists said most recommendations were commonsense ideas that workers already follow, and criticised a lack of labour inspections to monitor factory conditions.

“We have been consistently raising the issue of lack of a room for workers to rest, water coolers and demanding a break in the afternoons,” said Mahesh Gajera, programme co-ordinator with Aajeevika Bureau, a collective that supports migrant workers.

“Labour officials and district administration tell us that heat plans are only advisories and cannot be enforced,” he said. “Factory workers are struggling as machines further raise the temperature inside shop floors.”

A 2018 study by the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute found that hot weather meant Indian factory workers were less productive and more likely to miss work.

A 1ºC increase in the 10-day temperature average increased the probability of  a factory worker being  absent as much as 5%, according to the research.

Yadav is part of a workers’ group advocating cooling amenities more vociferously as their conditions worsen.

“Earlier we would bring up these issues occasionally but now we want changes to come soon. We want a cool place to sit and eat lunch, we want fans and we want solutions quickly,” he said.

New energy, new plans

With this summer’s high temperatures, increased use of air-conditioning in cities has led to a surge in power demand. With a demand-supply gap for electricity widening through the heat waves, many states give preference to residential consumers, imposing longer power cuts in industrial hubs.

Many businesses struggle as piped natural gas is not available. Diesel generators are widely banned to cut air pollution, leaving factories without power in outages.

“If our machines are idle, our workers are idle and everyone loses,” said Anil Bhardwaj, general secretary of the Federation of Indian Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises (FISME). Small firms find it especially tough as they lack power back-up arrangements of bigger manufacturers, he said.

This has driven Jashan Kahlon, MD of Kahlon International, an automotive parts maker in northern Punjab state, to consider other energy sources if the government will help out.

“We are demanding a solar subsidy so that small manufacturers can move away from their dependence on thermal (coal-based) power,” said Kahlon.

While industry groups such as FISME lobby for green energy subsidies, they say switching to renewables faces issues from funding and battery capacity to maintaining solar panels. It is not just a matter of energy sources, but also design.

When businessman Chander Shekhar Goel decided to build a new factory in Haryana state a few years ago, he considered plans to make the factory floor cooler — and ended up using material that is heat and sound-resistant.

“But now every year the summer is getting worse and we have to adapt,” said Goel, who runs Goel Engineers (India), a maker of metal sheets. “It is an additional cost for many small and medium-sized factories, but there is no choice.”

Industry bodies are also discussing the possibility of altering factory hours. Some suggest an earlier start could give workers reprieve in sweltering afternoons.

As most Indians wait for monsoon rains to bring down temperatures in their cities, Yadav said he would be happy if his employer simply installed a few fans. “A fan and access to cold water will be good,” he said. “The big changes may take years, but this would be a start.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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