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Glass bangle industry faces new adversary - climate change

Climate change is impacting the future of the Rs 1,000 crore industry that employs five lakh people.
Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 08:31 IST

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Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh: The next time you see glass bangles, shimmering delicately on a woman’s wrist or glittering in a shop, think of climate change.

It’s a link that is neither unlikely nor far-fetched but a living reality for lakhs of workers bearing the brunt of rising temperatures that have combined with furnace heat to add up to multiple health complications.

For generations, artisans in this famed ‘City of Glass’ have braved the heat of furnaces to mould glass into bangles. The new adversary in already perilous working conditions is climate change, impacting on the future of the Rs 1,000 crore industry that employs five lakh people.

Bangles are crafted through a meticulous process that begins with melting glass. For glass bangles, molten glass is drawn into thin tubes, cooled, and cut into the desired lengths, which are then reheated and shaped around a mandrel to form circles.

Aastha Dev, who has been working in the traditional industry, where the skill of moulding glass into bangles has been passed down from generation to generation, has been hospitalised twice in the last one month after repeated dehydration and isn’t sure how long her health will hold out.

“It's like working in an inferno,” the 35-year-old told PTI.

“Earlier, the heat was something we could manage, but now, with the temperatures outside also climbing, it’s become unbearable. Many of us fall sick but we have no choice but to continue working. But for how much longer?” The bangle factories, predominantly small-scale units, lack proper ventilation and cooling systems. During peak summer months, temperatures inside these workshops can soar above 50 degrees Celsius. And when outside temperatures themselves cross 45 degrees Celsius with a heat index of 50 degrees Celsius as in this unprecedented summer, the situation seems impossibly exacerbated.

Workers often suffer from heat exhaustion, dehydration, and other heat-related illnesses.

“By midday, it feels like I’m suffocating. My head spins, and my skin burns. We drink a lot of water, but it’s never enough. There are days when I feel like I might just collapse,” said 22-year-old Rajesh Kumar.

"Some days, we have to take breaks just to catch our breath. It’s especially hard for older people working with us and those with underlying health issues," the young man added.

Kamlesh, a 50-year-old diabetic who works in the furnace of the bangle factory, is one such person.

"Many of us have been hospitalised due to dehydration. In hospitals we are just given saline drips, and we bear its cost on our own. I earn Rs 300 per day. How can we pay medical bills with that income," he said.

The situation is particularly dire for women workers who make up a significant portion of the workforce. They often endure longer hours and more physically demanding tasks. They are often tasked with designing, painting and embossing each bangle. This has to be done when the bangle is at a particular temperature.

"There are many cases of workers fainting. We take turns to step out just to breathe but even outside it is so hot that it is barely a relief. Summers have always been difficult but this year almost all of us are battling one or the other ailment related to heat," Reena, who has been working in the industry for a decade, told PTI.

The claustrophobic glass workshops of Firozabad might seem many worlds removed macro global forecasts of heat warming. But they are clearly not.

Climate change and the El Nino phenomenon have greatly contributed to this extreme heat across Asia, including India, according to the World Weather Attribution group.

World Weather Attribution uses weather observations and climate models to understand how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of extreme weather events.

In 2024, global heat records were broken every month. This trend began with the warmest January on record since 1850, continued with the hottest March, and now May 2024 is set to become the 12th consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures.

Health experts have voiced concerns over the long-term implications for the glass workers.

“Prolonged exposure to such extreme temperatures can lead to chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease and asthma among others,” said Dr Sajid Ahmed, a local physician who frequently treats workers from the bangle factories.

“We’re seeing an increase in cases of heat stroke, respiratory issues, and severe dehydration. It is alarming,” he said.

Factory owners acknowledge the harsh conditions but feel constrained by economic pressures. Some factory owners said they are experimenting with basic cooling solutions like installing fans and improving hydration facilities.

"But the industry is such that it demands the heat as glass can melt only at a particular temperature so it will be that hot. We know it’s tough for the workers,” admitted Omkar Singh, who owns the Natraj bangle factory.

“The nature of the industry is such that these workers have to work near furnaces, near heat. We have a cold water supply for them," he said.

How far these measures go in actually ameliorating the problems is debatable.

“We need more substantial support from the government and larger industry stakeholders. Subsidies for better equipment, health check-ups, and education on heat management can make a significant difference,” said Ramesh Singh, a bangle factory worker and labour union worker.

Recent studies have highlighted the impact of climate change on traditional industries like that of Firozabad's glass industry.

According to a study by the International Labour Organization (ILO), workers in industries relying on high heat processes are at a higher risk of heat-related health issues as global temperatures rise. The ILO projected in its 2019 report that India could lose 5.8 per cent of working hours, equivalent to 34 million full-time jobs, due to global warming by 2030.

This productivity loss will impact income and livelihoods, particularly for informal workers who are most vulnerable to extreme heat.

India’s northern, northwestern and central regions are enduring an intense heatwave with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issuing red alerts for several cities in the region.

According to the IMD, a heatwave occurs when the maximum temperature reaches 40 degrees Celsius in the plains, 30 degrees in hilly areas, and 37 degrees in coastal regions, with an increase of at least 4.5 degrees above the normal maximum temperature.

The IMD has warned of a "very high likelihood of developing heat illness and heatstroke in all age groups".

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Published 19 June 2024, 08:31 IST

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