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The damaging effects of climate change on Indian industry

As heatwaves rise across the country a new report looks at the effects of heat stress on Indian factories

India's factory workers will be hit hard by the effects of increasing heat stress.
India's factory workers will be hit hard by the effects of increasing heat stress. (Istockphoto)

It’s still only the first week of April and heatwaves have already begun around the country. On 6 April, the India Meteorological Department (IMD), forecast heatwave conditions in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Earlier this week, temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius were recorded in these states, as well as in parts of Haryana, Delhi, Telangana, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Maximum temperatures were as much as 3.1 degrees to 5.1 degrees Celsius above normal in parts of the country. In what has become an annual occurrence, heatwaves are starting earlier in the year, and their severity is increasing as well.

In October last year, I had spoken to scientists and planners about the rising scourge of heatwaves in India. One of them, adaptation and water sources specialist Christian Siderius, pointed out that with the impacts of climate change increasing, dangerous heat over South Asia could last longer than during the hottest months of April, May and June. He also pointed out that not only will India have to find solutions for extreme heat, but also something more insidious called chronic heat.

“Because individual heat events start to merge all together, and you get a very long hot season, and that will grind down people’s health. It will also be costly,” he told me, adding that as average temperatures go up, “you see more extremes, and the extreme is also in the length of heat exposure”. According to estimates, if the world heats up by even 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, India would see anywhere between 100-250 days of dangerous, constant heat. Imagine every day between early-April to end-September being intensely hot and humid.

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Such lethal levels of heat comes with a great cost, including the health and the economy. According to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) 2019 report Working On A Warm Planet, India is projected to lose the equivalent of 34 million full-time jobs in 2030 due to heat stress, with agriculture and construction bearing the brunt. Another 2019 study highlighted that an additional 1.5 million people may die in India every year by 2100 due to extreme heat. A 2020 study by the McKinsey Global Institute highlighted the perils of increasing wet-bulb (humid) heatwaves, affecting up to 700 billion people across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by 2050.

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A new study released at the end of March this year investigates the effect of heat stress on Indian manufacturing. Published in the University of Chicago’s Journal Of Political Economy, the report, The Impact Of Temperature On Productivity And Labor Supply: Evidence From Indian Manufacturing presents some startling new data. Using data on worker output and other data from over 58,000 factories across India, the study states that for every 1 degree Celsius rise in annual temperature, Indian plants produce 2% less revenue.

“We see that in the absence of climate control, worker productivity declines on hot days, and we spot absenteeism even for workers in factories with cooling facilities. When you compound that with limited adoption of climate control technologies in manufacturing industries, you know that we are dealing with a complex problem here,” says the report’s co-author E. Somanathan of Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Delhi. He adds that with increasing temperatures, the industrial sector could increase automation and also shift away from labour-intensive sectors in hotter parts of the world. This would lead to more wage inequalities and hit the competitiveness of Indian manufacturing.

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What this report and others make very clear is that changing government policy and a pro-active stance from Indian industry to reduce carbon emissions is sorely needed. Writing in Mint on 7 April, Ulka Kelkar, director, climate, World Resources Institute (WRI) India and Jamshyd N. Godrej, chairman and managing director, Godrej & Boyce, state something similar: “…Indian industry also has the responsibility of looking after the well-being of its workers and the communities living near its sites—to equip them with new skills and help them adapt to climate risks. But the challenge is very clear: Without industry, the world cannot win its fight against climate change.”

Listen to the Mint Climate Change Tracker podcast hosted by Bibek Bhattacharya.

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