A picture, they say, is worth 1,000 words. But there are times when even 10,000 are not enough to capture the plight of people caught in the brutal heatwave sweeping through the subcontinent. Especially the poor and the underprivileged—the construction worker forced to work outside or the farmer who has to tend to his crop, or the womenfolk in villages who have to walk miles under an unrelenting sun to collect water.
Official data presents an alarming scene: India suffered its hottest March and April in more than 100 years, and it is likely to get worse in the coming weeks till the monsoons bring in cooling rains to the singed land. Already, more than two dozen people have died of suspected heat strokes since late March.
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Daily wager Suraj Pal Singh’s weather-beaten face is caked with mud from the brick kiln at Sikrot village in Ghaziabad district where he works 10 hours a day in extreme conditions, with temperatures rising above 46-47 degrees Celcius from the heat of the kiln’s furnace. He barely earns Rs 400 to Rs 500 a day, starting work as early as 8 am. Pal, 38, says he has no option but work at the kiln to feed his family of seven, including five children. “Working here feels like my body is burning,” he says. But, Pal adds, he will have to continue in order to ensure education for his children so that they don’t have to suffer the pain and agony of such work.
Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari
The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has said that the current heatwave, which started on March 11, has impacted 15 Indian states and Union Territories till April 24. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has a grim warning: it has categorised 23 of 28 states and some 100 cities and districts as being at risk of suffering extreme heat.
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Burnt sienna For the past five years, shepherd Kapuram Hadtanji has been walking a flock of over 500 sheep and goats from his village in Rajasthan to graze in harvested fields of wheat in Dalilpur village, Faridabad, Haryana. He owns just a few of the animals in the flock, most of which belong to a “seth” in his village, where pasture has become scarce. It takes him four months to walk each way, unless the “seth” is in a hurry and gives him money to transport the animals back home. Photograph: Vikram Sharma
The heatwave has triggered a chain reaction: an acute power shortage, which the government plans to tackle by reopening more than 100 coal mines to fuel power stations. To clear tracks for more cargo trains to transport the coal, India has cancelled more than 650 passenger trains through the end of May.
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Life-bearing tentacles At Sanjay Camp in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, shanty dwellers queue up to fill water from a Jal Board water tanker. Sandwiched between upscale staff quarters of Indian Railways and Ministry of External Affairs, the daily wagers of this slum go without water if they miss out on the State’s largesse, which is irregular at best. Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey
While the coal will power the ACs in the homes of those who can afford them—and add to the greenhouse gas emissions that will make the world even warmer—the poor will continue to bear the brunt of the extreme weather conditions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned that India is among the countries expected to be the worst affected by the climate crisis.
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Respite Zubair Khan (12) pulls a cartload of water from a broken municipal pipe for his large family two or three times a day along with his siblings, in Bhayander, Mumbai. His father says they are regularly harassed by authorities for availing water from the pipe. Photograph: Dinesh Parab
Last week, Pakistan minister Sherry Rehman said her country went from winter to summer this year without experiencing spring. She could have been very well speaking for a billion people in India too.
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A two-year-old girl sleeps in a swing made out of a sari on a pavement, near North Delhi Kali Bari.
Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey
Fatigue Harpal Singh, a peasant in Ghaziabad district, quenches his thirst as he takes a break from tending to his farmland in the midst of a heatwave in India’s northern plains. Singh, 31, does not understand the concept of climate change but he is wise enough to know that the rising summer temperatures are not normal. A farmer for 17 years now, Singh has seen his crop production decrease due to erratic monsoons. He also says that with the groundwater level falling by at least 20 feet since he started farming, he has been forced to use water pumps to irrigate his fields. “This leads to increase in electricity bills, which eats into my already meagre earnings. How am I supposed to feed my family?” he asks. But even for a hardened farmer like Singh, the present furnace-like weather condition is presenting the biggest challenge, as people like him have to work under the unforgiving sun for long hours of the day. Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari
A rickshaw puller falls asleep clutching a water bottle under the flyover near Lodhi Road, New Delhi. A street-dweller, he can’t afford to rent a place to live.
Photograph: Hardik Chhabra
Night vision For daily wager Ramveer, who lives in the Yamuna Khadar slum area with his wife and two children, sleeping at night is a constant struggle against the oppressive heat and mosquitoes. He cannot afford an electric fan in his small one-room dwelling. He lights a few incense sticks before going to sleep and hopes that the smoke will keep the mosquitoes away Photograph: Suresh K. Pandey
Every season is unbearable A photo frame with an image of a grand building stood out like a protest banner. A protest against the abandonment of the state. Of the claim of the homeless to a dream at least. A child came running towards it. “My father put it there,” he said. “Where is your home?” I asked. “Look there,” he said. Behind the frame, a tattered tarpaulin sheet stretched over a mini world of belongings and a lot of discarded items from others. The father wasn’t around. Mohammad Fukan, a cleaner, said the people who live on that particular pavement across the grand hotel, The Lodhi, are mostly beggars and rag-pickers. The photo frame must have been one of those discards. “We can dream about houses like these. Dreams are free,” he said. “It must be cooler inside those rooms.” With all this heat that the concrete emits on days like these, the homeless say it is difficult to breathe sometimes. “We sprinkle water on the ground,” he said. No electricity, no roof and just a pavement and a lot of sky is what these poor have. “In this city, people like us wait for the season to change. We wait endlessly. Every season is unbearable,” he said. “I don’t know what climate change is. But to wait for the next season, knowing it will bring no respite is what it could be,” he said. Do those houses feel nice in this hellish heat? The child asked this as he pointed to the domed building in the frame.
Photograph: Chinki Sinha
62-year-old Ramvir, a vegetable vendor, uses a handheld fan to cool himself. He has been living under the Safdarjung flyover with his family for the last five years. Although they have a small hovel by the side of the road, they prefer to sleep on the divider as it’s relatively cooler outside than in the congested slum that they share with about 20 other families
Photograph: Vikram Sharma
Homeless men sleeping on the road divider in the Nizamuddin area in Delhi, on a hot summer night. Passing traffic stirs the air and provides momentary relief from the scorching heat.
Photograph: Vikram Sharma
These photos tell the story—of man and animal battling Nature’s fury.
(This appeared in the print edition as "DANTE’S PEAK")
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