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  • Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India.

    Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India. | Photo: Reuters

Published 19 June 2019

Long spells of unemployment mean that many of the poorest workers continue to seek work throughout the heatwave.

A deadly heatwave in India killed 184 people this season in the eastern state of Bihar, according to the country’s disaster management authorities. Since Saturday 78 people have died due to high temperatures.

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The poorest workers are bearing the brunt, national disaster management officials said, warning that the record temperatures were impacting more states than in previous years.

“This is the worst heat wave ever. In 2015, the heatwave was recorded in nine states, this year the forecast is 23,” said Anup Kumar Srivastava, drought and heatwave expert at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). State officials imposed curfew-like restrictions during the extreme heat. All construction works and outdoor activities have been banned between 11:00 and 16:00.

Hospitals are overflowing with patients due to the heatwave while almost half the country is struggling through the worst drought in six decades. This has resulted in thousands fleeing their homes in search of cooler places but they are a minority. Most people are forced to wait out the extreme conditions.

“The climate is no longer safe for people in India. Richer Indians will be able to migrate to cooler parts of the world. Poorer Indians will have to stay put," British Green Party politician Alex Armitage said.

Workers on farms, construction sites or on salt pans were worst hit by the heatwave, labor rights campaigners said.

Officials at NDMA said its advisory on reducing eight-hour work schedules by 20 percent during summer months was being implemented for government workers who are paid daily rates under its national rural employment guarantee scheme. But those working for private employers on farms, building sites, and brick kilns had no such protection, labor rights campaigners warned.

“Migrant workers are made to work even in the sweltering heat,” said Geetha Ramakrishnan of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, a construction workers’ union, adding that “apart from construction workers, those working in salt pans or near furnaces in factories are also feeling the impact.” 

Long spells of unemployment meant that many of the poorest workers, like Nirmal Ahirwal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, continued to seek work throughout the heatwave.

“I have been digging wells. It has never been this hot ever. I don’t get work for half a month, so I take up whatever comes my way. I have no choice,” he said.

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