Summer Ordeal

Last year India witnessed 280 heat-waves across 16 states—the highest number the country has seen in 12 years. As things are this year the situation won’t be any better. Indications are that it may be worse this year. According to a May 2022 report by an international group of scientists the likelihood of similar heat waves occurring in India has increased by 30 times since the pre-industrial era. Heat-waves are likely to become more frequent and hotter. A recent study by the Indian Meteorological Department noted that among natural hazards, after floods and tropical cyclones, heat-waves had killed the most number of people in India. Last year cold-wave too was severe and it was fatal in north India, killing many people.

How workers in unorganised sector are exposed to extreme weather conditions, having no legal protection; is being ignored by the persons in power even in the 21st century. Brick kiln workers are most vulnerable to heat conditions because they virtually toil in hell-fires. Incidentally brick kilns across the country consume one third of total coal produced by the government-owned coal companies. It doesn’t require much elaboration to gauge how much green house gas emissions they are causing. “Occupational Heat Exposure”—a technical term that includes factors such as outside temperature and metabolic heat from exertion—in the brick kilns in summer months sometimes exceeded the international standard limits for safe work. But who bothers about work-place safety in India and that too in informal sector? Nobody. Some labour laws are there but they are not for implementation. For one thing India is the second largest brick producer in the world. Roughly 144,000 brick kilns are said to be operating officially in the country, employing mostly migrant workers who are actually bonded labourers without being called so. Then nobody knows how many illegal kilns are working defying statutory rules. A conservative estimate says there are about 23 million migrant workers in India’s brick kilns. They are in debt bondage and the whole family members including women and children are to toil for the whole season. Workers take an advance that they have to pay off. As per provisions of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act of 1976, any arrangement in which a worker renders labour in consideration of an advance is a form of bonded labour. So brick kilns workers are basically bonded labourers. They mainly come from the marginalised sections of the society—Dalits, Adivasis and OBC category people. This summer they are facing tremendous hardships because of steady rise of mercury.

Meanwhile, alarming reports are emanating from different sources. The next five years are almost sweltering, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) warned recently. “The planet is already running a fever”. The average temperature for the entire five-year period will be hotter than previous five years. The last eight years have been the hottest on the books, the WMO reported in January. In the last few years, people almost in every corner of the globe witnessed jaw-dropping damage that extreme temperatures can bring. Climate Change has already raised baseline temperatures for the planet earth. Now, a weather pattern known as El Nino is going to make things even hotter when it develops later this year. And this will have far-reaching repercussions for health, food security, water management and the environment. Ecological disaster can hardly be avoided.

1.5 degrees Celsius of warming is a big issue widely debated throughout the world for quite some time. The Paris Climate Agreement strives to keep the world from warming beyond that threshold. WMO is sounding alarm but nobody is listening. For the industrially advanced countries it is business as usual. China—in truth China is an industrially advanced country now—suffered its most severe heat-wave last year. Another record smashing heat-wave in July last year sent temperatures in notoriously cool and cloudy UK soaring above 40 degrees Celsius for the first time—a direct effect of climate change.

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Vol 55, No. 50, Jun 11 - 17, 2023