Labourers toiling in heat wave say have little choice

  • Reuters, Gurgaon
  • Updated: May 29, 2015 20:58 IST

In India's upmarket "Millennium City", labourers building luxury homes say they have little choice but to toil in the extreme heat, despite government warnings not to venture outside after this week's heat wave killed 1,700 people.

"How do we cope with the heat? We have to raise kids and so we have to work even though it's hot. Otherwise what will our children eat?" said 38-year-old bricklayer Sunder in Gurgaon, a satellite town near Delhi where the offices of several multinational companies are located.

Sunder, who did not give his second name, lives on the construction site with his wife and their 12-year-old daughter, in a brick hut without electricity.

This week's heat wave, the deadliest in a decade, has exposed the vulnerability of millions of Indians who work outside in extreme temperatures that meteorologists say are increasingly common.

While temperatures regularly top 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in May and June, parts of the south and east of India have baked under heat as high as 47 degrees Celsius for seven straight days.

Authorities have cancelled doctors' leave, set up water and milk distribution points and warned people not to go outside in the middle of the day to avoid the worst of the heat.

In some parts of southern India, streets were empty on Friday, construction sites abandoned and offices half empty. But for many poorer Indians the need to earn money outweighs the risks of working in the sun.

Most of those who have died are labourers or old people suffering from sunstroke or dehydration.

In Gurgaon, where temperatures remained above average at 43 degrees Celsius on Friday, some labourers earning Rs. 200 ($3.14) a day said they had worked all through the week, constructing high-rise blocks and laying cables.

Feeling dizzy

Farmer Ijaz Ul Miyan left his village two months ago to move to Gurgaon, where he lays cables for about the going rate.

He said his employer allowed him to start work earlier so he could stay in the shade during the midday sun, and then work again in the late afternoon once the heat had subsided.

"Yesterday I felt dizzy and vomited because of the heat. Some men are on leave because of weather. Three people are resting in their rooms today," he said.

Komal Prasad, 56, a supervisor overseeing a separate group of 10 to 15 labourers, said they were given hats and asked to avoid working during the middle of the day.

"We have cold water for bathing and drinking water is stored in earthen pots," he added.

Many of the city's wealthier residents have meanwhile rushed to air-conditioned malls to cool off after a spike in energy demand triggered widespread power cuts that have lasted as long as 10 hours.

The malls typically run their own back-up diesel generators, an inefficient source of power that sends pollutants into the air.

The Indian Meteorological Department said that ozone levels in parts of Delhi had this week breached permissible limits, local media reported on Friday.

"Power supply at my residential area is the worst. There's a power cut from night till morning and sometimes it's for the whole day and the whole night," said 26-year-old Eva Das, who works in marketing and moved to Gurgaon six months ago.

"I cannot bear this heat ... I'll be moving out of this place from July."

Disaster management officials have said more needs to be done to alert residents to the risks of staying outside in the heat, particularly if the heat waves persist.

Delhi-based research group Centre for Science and Environment said on Thursday that eight out of the 10 warmest years on record in India were during the decade to 2010.

In cities like Gurgaon, paved surfaces and a lack of trees magnify the effect of the heat, making ambient temperatures feel 3 to 4 degrees hotter, the CSE said.

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