The economic impact of India’s heatwaves
In today's Sunday Special we talk about how heatwaves affect the country
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There’s no denying it anymore. India is experiencing a heatwave of epic proportions and we have a problem on our hands.
Now before we get into the story, we need to understand something. How exactly do we define a heatwave?
Let’s turn to the weather experts at the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). Qualitatively, a heatwave is defined as a condition of air temperature that’s fatal to humans. Quantitatively, it is defined based on temperature thresholds over a region. For instance, a heatwave is categorized as such when the maximum temperature hits 40°C if you’re living in the plains. And when the deviation from the normal breaches 6.4°C, then you’re talking about a severe heatwave.
This year, the heatwave has been severe, no doubt. But it’s also arrived uncharacteristically early. We first declared a heatwave on March 11. That’s supposed to be “springtime”, right?! But it didn’t stop abruptly either. If anything, the heatwaves are getting longer. One study found that we are seeing these heatwaves last more days than ever before. For instance, we went from 413 days between 1981 and 1990 to 575 between 2001–2010 and 600 between 2011–2020.
So what’s happening here?
Well, blame global warming. The earth’s temperature has risen 1.2 degrees since the industrial era. And the increased human activity is warming up the planet. The greenhouse emissions building up inside the atmosphere trap reflected sunlight from the earth’s surface and it heats up the whole planet. And while historically, India's emissions have stayed below a certain threshold, it is the third-largest emitter of CO2 in the world today. The country emits about 2.46 billion metric tonnes of carbon pollutants each year. Which roughly translates to about 6.8% of the total global emissions. And if we continue along this path, heatwaves in India are likely to last much longer.
Now it’s quite easy to sit back in our airconditioned rooms and scoff at all this. But there’s a problem with that line of thinking. It affects everyone, even if you’re in an air-conditioned room.
Because the thing is, if the heatwave doesn’t get to you, the economic effects will.
For starters, there’s the power problem. We won’t dwell on it too much. But know that hotter summer translates to higher electricity consumption. And when we run short of coal, you start seeing frequent power cuts — including blackouts that could potentially affect industrial production.
Then there’s the indirect economic impact. For instance, the effect heatwaves have on people who are out there slogging each day in the sun — the construction workers and the farmhands. When their productivity takes a turn for the worse, the whole country slows down. The economic impact will reach you.
And it’s not like they’re a tiny minority. According to some estimates, the number could be as high as 49% of the total labour base. Or about 231 million people. These are folks working outside, facing the full wrath of the sun. A sick day for them doesn’t just involve a pay cut. It means not making rent this month. And if the heatwaves persist, we could lose 5.8% of the total working hours by 2030. That’s worth 34 million jobs.
Then there’s crop damage. Think wheat — a commodity in short supply since war broke out in Ukraine. As supplies dwindled, we hoped that India could jump in and meet the shortfall. However, the sudden rise in temperatures in wheat-growing states such as Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh has had a severe impact on wheat harvests. The Indian government had originally predicted wheat output to be over 122 million tonnes this year. But now, some estimates suggest that nearly 15% of this crop could’ve withered away because of the unbearable heat. And reports suggest that India is already considering banning the export of this staple commodity.
And it’s not just wheat, cumin is also taking a beating. A report from CRISIL points out that cumin yields have dropped - about 20% in Rajasthan and 15% in Gujarat. And if all this hasn't stirred you, there’s the loss of human life. According to the IMD, severe heatwaves have killed more than 17,000 Indians during the past 50 years in India. And a report by IndiaSpend claims that about 6,167 people lost their lives between 2010 and 2018.
Now the Indian government has pledged to reduce emissions and become carbon neutral by 2070. But we also intend to become a $5 trillion economy before FY29. So it seems the country will have to walk a tightrope — keep pace with growth while making sure we don’t increase our carbon footprint by a huge margin.
Will we be able to do this?
We don’t know. But I suppose we will just have to hope that we somehow find a way, no?
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