What it’s like to toil in India’s dangerous and relentless heat



Noon – 5 p.m.

The sun is beating down just after 1.30pm as Hussain cruises down a wide boulevard called Africa Marg for his fifth delivery. He passes a crowd forming on the sidewalk. A water delivery boy passed out and fell off his motorbike.

Hussain shakes his head.

For him, surviving the heat is a matter of tenacity. “He’s not mentally tough enough for a job like this,” he said.

Hussainrides his motorbike through the traffic and sweltering heat of New Delhi as he delivers parcels.

But experts say enduring extreme heat is more a matter of what the body can physically handle. Even a young and healthy person like Hussain can be overwhelmed in an environment like Delhi.

The higher the wet bulb temperature, the more difficult it is for people to keep their bodies cool, because sweat does not evaporate as quickly in high humidity. Dehydration and low blood pressure can make people dizzy and delirious. Their kidneys and heart have to work harder. If their internal temperatures become extremely high, toxic substances can leak from their intestines into the bloodstream, causing multiple organ failure, which can be fatal.

Jay, the physiologist, noted that the Australian Open canceled matches when the wet globe temperature exceeded 32.5C90.5F.

That number, he said, “is the threshold for elite, elite, and highly conditioned athletes competing for millions of dollars to play a sport.” He added: “And these guys [Hussain and Shaw] are supposed to stay in there just to do their job.

In the two days The Post spent with Hussain and Shaw, the two had to contend with wet bulb temperatures of up to 33.8C92.8F.

Hussaintakes a break from work for a quick bite to eat at a roadside food cart in New Delhi.

The extreme afternoon conditions coincide with the busiest part of Hussain’s work day – when it becomes most difficult to stay hydrated.

He brings his own water to work every morning, but it usually runs out within hours. Hussain also rushes to make enough deliveries to get a $5 cash bonus, leaving him no time to refill his water bottle.

The easiest way, says Hussain, is to ask his customers for water. But they are often in a hurry, or the request is too clumsy.

On this day, an elderly woman in a luxury apartment will not even interact with Hussain. She asks him to drop a bag of snacks outside her door before opening it.

“With someone like her, you can’t ask for water,” he says as he comes back down the elevator.

The next day, across town, Shaw sits on the cool marble floor of the house he’s working on and gazes out through the open facade. The four-bedroom apartments he is building are worth $1.4 million each.

Delhi is so hot that architects often leave a “sapaat” – or hollow space – that allows hot air to escape from the building, says Shaw. But those cooling efforts are negated by the huge windows it will help install.

In this ultra-rich part of Delhi, the locals don’t care. “They have air conditioners,” he said.

As a child growing up in the Bihar countryside, Shaw recalls, he would go and cool off in the mango trees whenever it was hot. Delhi offers no such refuge due to a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect.

The vast paved expanses of cities absorb and then re-emit solar radiation. The heat bouncing off the buildings amplifies the burning sensation of the sun on the skin. Millions of vehicles, factories and air conditioners – most powered by fossil fuels – generate “waste heat” which adds to the overall load.

The problem is almost always worse in low-income areas. A study 2019 found that such neighborhoods in Delhi could be as much as 6C10.8F hotter than a wealthy neighborhood on the same night.

Shawworks on a construction site in New Delhi, with little relief from the city’s extreme heat.

“Heat is a disease of vulnerability,” said emergency physician Cecilia Sorenson, director of the Global Consortium on Climate Health and Education at Columbia University. “Those who can protect themselves do so. And those who can’t, don’t.

Like so much else about climate change, the extreme heat record is fundamentally unequal. It’s not just that wealthy people can more easily afford air conditioning, or that they’re more likely to live in cooler neighborhoods with lush vegetation, less car traffic and fewer factories. It is that low-income countries are expected to experience far more dangerous conditions as the planet continues to warm.

In India, where the average citizen produces less carbon emissions each year than a return flight from New York to London generates, the number of extremely hot days is on track to triple over the next 30 years.

“It’s what keeps me awake at night,” said Sorenson – imagining the death and devastation of today’s heatwaves multiplied by 10, 30 or 100. “We are deeply under-equipped to deal with what’s to come.”


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