Natural Disasters

Blazing India: Labourers, farmers struggle most to live, earn

A new set of victims are people in hilly regions areas who are not prepared for such high temperatures

By Akshit Sangomla, Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 21 June 2019
Photo: Getty Images

India is sizzling under abnormally high temperatures and it’s the poor who are affected the most. Relentless heatwave is hitting the pockets and health and nutrition of daily wage labourers, street vendors, farmers and the poor living in areas that don’t usually see the mercury soar so high.

These people have no option but to step out in the brutal sun to earn a living.

Daily wagers

One such labourer is Gobinda Deep, who has been slogging for a daily wage for the past 20 years. Despite finding working in this intense heat tough, he can’t stay at home because the houses in slums are no good either.

“It becomes difficult to work after 10 am. The heat becomes unbearable,” said the labourer who works in a wholesale market in Odisha’s Sambalpur for Rs 100 a day. His home is small and feels like a heater, he added.

In Odisha, the mercury has been invariably higher than 40 degrees Celsius all through April and May. Sambalpur specifically has seen the highest temperature in the state with the mercury breaching the 45°C mark on June 11, 2019.

In coastal Odisha too high temperature coupled with humidity crippled normal life. Bhubaneswar, with a humidity level of 60 per cent, recorded temperatures above 40°C on several days in June.

“We cannot work due to all the sweating,” said Akash Digal, a construction labourer in Bhubaneswar who earns around Rs 350 a day.

Digal said that though the government’s advisory for heat wave said all outside jobs should be stopped between 11 am and 3.30 pm, the contractors make them work in intense heat even at 2pm. “I must have skipped work at least for 15 days in the last one and a half months to escape this scorching heat and so lost my wage,” he added.

The heatwave is costing such labourers high in other states too. “I was earning Rs 500-600 a day to dig up soil on contract basis, carry sand, bricks or stone chips. But the intense heat has forced us to reduce our working hours and got our earnings down to Rs 300-400 a day,” said Rajdeo Yadav, a daily wage labourer in Patna.

The hostile climate is forcing the poor to not take the risk of working during in the afternoon. “We have to take regular intervals to rest and escape the Sun. We don’t work between 12.30 pm and 3.30 pm,” added Yadav.

Water woes

This extreme heat is making accessing water a herculean task. “Bringing water from a pit five kilometres away from the village has become a daily routine. Some people in the village have bought donkeys to carry water but others have to carry it on their heads,” said Jhinki Bai, a resident of Ambagaon village in Madhya Pradesh’ Khargone district. She recently suffered from a heat stroke and was not able to work for many days.

Khargone was hit by heartwave spells continuously for one-and-a-half months: The mercury touched 47.5°C in April-end and this continued till mid of June.

Farmers bear the brunt

Delay in monsoon coupled with the prolonged heatwave is impacting farmers badly. They have no option but to work in the day and yet they see the fruit of their labour dry up.

“I had cultivated cotton in a four-acre land but due to lack of water, I would lose 50 per cent of the yield. Last year’s harvest was 48 quintals, but I do not expect more than 25 quintals this year,” said Dharam Das Lohare, a resident of Mordar village in Khargone. The heat has also impacted the quality of the produce.

While their earnings have reduced, they have to spend more and more on healthcare. “There are 17 people in my family. Almost everyone fell ill at least once in this season. For farmers it does not matter how harsh the weather condition is, we would still have to go out,” he added.

Hills didn’t expect it

It is June, summer already in Kashmir and huge herds of sheep, goats and cattle are still seen treading the long arduous roads to highland pastures. This annual exercise, where Gujjars and Bakerwals, the tribal nomadic communities of Kashmir migrate from warmer and low-lying areas of Jammu to higher reaches along with their livestock usually took place in beginning  May every year.

But this year, low temperature and heavy precipitation in Kashmir, following a season of heavy snowfall has made it dangerous for livestock to sustain in higher reaches. So, the journey has been pushed back by a month.

“Our livestock has suffered due to inadequate availability of grazing lands and water en-route,” Javid Rahi, a tribal rights activist and founder of Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation said.

Pastures and forest lands have been barb-wired or fenced in most districts of Kashmir and trespassing is prohibited while private lands where grazing could be a possibility comes at a cost. “The journey time has increased and the cost of migration has doubled,” he said.

This delay has also reduced the time the livestock gets in green pastures from three to two months, thus affecting its growth, Rahi said.

Another hill state — Himachal Pradesh — is facing quite a popular crisis. It is said that the greater the heat in the plains, the more is the pressure of tourists to the hills. The situation becomes worse when the influx of tourists far exceeds the carrying capacity of the state. This leads to extreme stress on local resources.

“The authorities just fail to acknowledge the toll this unbridled tourist inflow has taken. Nobody is talking about communities like shepherds and cattle rearers that have been worst affected. With the vehicles consuming the entire space, they cannot move freely with their animals and are being forced to transport them in trucks,” said environment activist Akshay Jasrotia.

“The meadows, where new camping sites have come up, are actually grazing lands. Since all this is being carried out in the unorganised private sector, monitoring becomes very difficult,” he added.

(With inputs from Kalyani Moroney, Imran Khan, Priya Ranjan Sahu, Gundluru Rammohan, Manish Mishra and Rajiv Khanna)

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