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Delhi Heatwave: India's record high temperatures prevent decarbonizing

Delhi Heatwave: India's record high temperatures prevent decarbonizing

Nine died from the heat in the northwestern state of Rajasthan last week and 10 suspected heat-related deaths happened in just six hours at a single hospital in Odisha state in the country’s east.

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Last Updated : 31 May 2024, 09:44 IST
Last Updated : 31 May 2024, 09:44 IST
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By David Fickling

It can often seem a triumph that India exists at all.

By some miracle of human ingenuity and industry, a land area barely bigger than Argentina with less water than Colombia is able to support nearly a fifth of the world’s population. The scorching temperatures in the capital New Delhi this week are a warning sign, however. The magic spell that has sustained this achievement is coming close to breaking.

That’s an issue not just for those sweltering on the streets of the world’s second-biggest city, but for the path to wealth that 1.4 billion people hope to follow. India has a far poorer natural endowment of land than Europe, North America and China, the continental economies that preceded it on the road to riches. Even the fragile benefits that its citizens have managed to eke out of this unpromising soil might now be slipping further away, as climate change exposes its deep fragility and washes away the foundations of growth.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pitch in the election that ends Saturday is that his Bharatiya Janata Party has made the country the fastest-growing Group of 20 economy. “India is on the path to becoming a developed nation,” he told a rally this week in West Bengal, a region where the BJP has historically performed poorly.

Even as he spoke those words, the country was struggling with the most basic tasks of survival. Delhi recorded its first heatstroke death amid temperatures recorded by one (possibly erroneous) sensor as high as 52.9 degrees Celsius (127.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

Nine died from the heat in the northwestern state of Rajasthan last week and 10 suspected heat-related deaths happened in just six hours at a single hospital in Odisha state in the country’s east. Even Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was hospitalized with dehydration in the city of Ahmedabad this month.

The problem with Modi’s promise is that much of the work needed to reach developed-country status is at the mercy of this weather. India has the world’s biggest farm sector after China, and economic growth is at the mercy of the southwest monsoon rains that drench the country from June to September.

You can now add the effect of pre-monsoon heatwaves to that. Scorching temperatures from March to May blight crops, such as during a 2022 hot spell which reduced wheat output by about 4.5 per cent. Produce that has been farmed can end up spoiled, as heat and humidity and the lack of refrigeration leave it rotting before it can reach households. The price of vegetables has increased at double-digit rates in eight out of the past 10 months, piling pressure on living costs and forcing consumers to depend on cheaper, less healthy nutrition.

The rains that mark the breaking of the heatwave can bring their own problems. Warmer air holds more moisture, raising the risk of downpours so severe that they flood fields and wash away crops. Hailstorms, which can destroy entire fields in a matter of minutes, appear to be growing more frequent: One recent study in Kashmir found 27 such disasters in 2022, compared to two in 2007.

It’s not just plant life that suffers. While factory and office workers can go through the day in air-conditioned comfort regardless of the temperature outside, about 93 per cent of India’s labour force is in less organized jobs where no employer guarantees decent working conditions. When the mercury heads above 40 degree Celsius, farmers and urban laborers have little option but to down tools or face potentially catastrophic heatstroke.

That hampers the vast amount of construction work that development will require. Upper middle-income nations (the club which India would like to join) typically derive about a third of economic growth from fixed-capital formation — building things, in simple terms. India trails Vietnam and Bangladesh on this measure, and is light years behind China.

As of late 2022, India was reckoned to have only about 30 per cent of the urban infrastructure it will need by the end of the decade. The sodden monsoon is already a soft period for construction work, since cement needs dry air to set properly. Three consecutive years of record heatwaves mean that the hot summer months from March to June are increasingly affected, too, further squeezing the period when building sites can operate effectively.

India is responsible for very little of the carbon emissions that are rapidly making its climate unbearable — but it must take responsibility for the future.

Cheap solar power has only recently started showing signs of being installed at the rates needed to hit the government’s renewable power targets. Despite higher costs, China connected about 4.5 gigawatts of panels for every gigawatt India did in the first quarter of this year.

Public charging stations for the electric vehicles that could help clean up the choking pollution of India’s cities and reduce its dependence on imported oil are too few and far between. The 12,146 in operation to date are equivalent to less than 1 per cent of what the country will need by 2030.

Every side of politics wants India to become the affluent nation its people aspire to. The bridge to that destination, however, is weakened with every scorching summer and exceptional monsoon. For a country that hopes over the coming decade to industrialize without carbonizing, the risk is that it may end up in the worst of both worlds: trapped in a carbon-intensive past, prevented by its own scorching heat from building the economy of the future.

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