Road-melting heat becomes another part of the job for India’s day laborers

Why We Wrote This

On a reporting trip to India, Howard LaFranchi learned firsthand how stifling 118 degrees can be. But in cities with dramatic inequality, 118 doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone – especially for people who must work outside.

Courtesy of Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Monitor correspondent Howard LaFranchi sits in the shade with a construction crew during 118-degree weather in Delhi.

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Delhi is sweltering under a road-melting sun this week, with temperatures rising to a literally scorching 118 degrees Monday – less than a degree off the city’s all-time record high.

Such heat waves are growing in frequency and intensity in India, but for much of the upper crust, they’re a nuisance that can be dealt with easily enough. Houses and cars are air-conditioned; outdoor time is reduced. Done.

For millions more, though, the heat is a threat to be reckoned with. About one-fifth of Delhi’s residents do not have running water, and so-called water mafias sometimes charge exorbitant fees for family members tasked with water-collecting – usually women – to access community water pipes.

“We have to keep working even if our skin is heating and burns,” says Asharam, sharing a lunch of kulcha bread and tumeric-spiced chickpeas and tomatoes with his work crew, as they take a break from demolishing an old house. All are farm laborers in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh, who migrate here to snag day labor while farms sit out India’s hottest months.

“We have to keep drinking water so we can keep working,” Asharam adds. “We all need to make money to send back to our children.”

The crew demolishing an old house in the Lok Kalyan Marg neighborhood of India’s capital, one blow of a sledgehammer after the other, is taking a water break.

With Delhi temperatures rising to a literally scorching 118 degrees Monday – a record for the month of June, and less than a degree off the city’s all-time record high – water breaks are an absolute necessity.

“We have to keep working even if our skin is heating and burns, but we also know we need to keep drinking, drinking,” says Asharam, a day laborer sporting a red scarf around his head and a crystal around his neck. “We have to keep drinking water so we can keep working. We all need to make money to send back to our children.”

As Delhi swelters under a road-melting sun, the city’s upper crust finds ways easily enough to deal with what the Indian Meteorological Department has deemed an “exceptional heat wave.”

Houses and cars are air-conditioned; activity and time spent outdoors are reduced. Done.

But for the millions in this city – and the tens of millions more across northern India’s high-population zones – who must keep working without such luxuries, the heat is not just a nuisance but a threat to be reckoned with.

“We are used to heat, but these past days have been something else,” says Radesh, another of the house demolishers. Adjusting the green-checked scarf protecting his head, he adds, “You just tell yourself, ‘OK, it’s even hotter, so remember to drink that much more.’”

The men of the Lok Kalyan Marg demolition crew are not laboring in the front-page-worthy heat for the fun of it of course, but out of necessity. All farm laborers from the adjacent state of Uttar Pradesh, the men migrate to New Delhi and snag whatever day labor they can while the farms back home sit out India’s hottest months.

The men’s water source is not on the job site, but across the street and down the road: a community water spigot of sorts at a whitewashed malaria clinic. Together the men share a green plastic one-liter soda bottle, which they take turns walking the short distance to fill.

That may sound like an inconvenience, but there are probably thousands of Delhi women who would roll their eyes and scoff at the notion that going to fetch a liter of water, even if it is 118 degrees, is much of a hardship.

‘Water mafias’ and exceptional heat

About one-fifth of the city’s 24 million residents still do not have running water. In those households, the task of fetching water for the family cooking, bathing, and washing generally falls to women.

In the city’s slums and shantytowns, a community water pipe is often as good as it gets. And not uncommonly, powerful local families constituting “water mafias” will take over those pipes and charge exorbitant fees for access to them. And so many women are left to walk long distances with large plastic water jugs to a place where they hope city trucks distributing free water will pass.

Over recent days, some women have reported waiting for two hours or more in the officially “exceptional” heat. And if a water truck does come by, there is often jostling for access to it. Sometimes the mafias control the truck tankers as well.

And then the real work begins: how to get the heavy jugs of clean water safely back home? In recent days, reports have surfaced of women being robbed of their precious cargo. In a few cases, deaths have resulted from an altercation over a water jug.

Not surprisingly, water consumption – already at the limits of what city authorities can provide – spikes during heat waves. Government studies show that as global warming intensifies, an already hot India is heating up.

A recent study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology found that heat waves in India are growing in frequency and intensity. The current spate of ovenlike temperatures confirms the pattern. Temperatures in New Delhi dipped slightly Wednesday, as a sandstorm moved in. But with temperatures predicted to rise again for the rest of the week, back up to 112 Saturday, this month is almost certain to clock in as the hottest June on record.

Adjusting to a new normal

The men at the Lok Kalyan Marg demolition site don’t care much about records.

Taking their lunch break, the men get out small plastic bags of kulcha, bread that they eat with a bit of salt. Today Shamlalpal, another member of the crew, has walked down to a vendor selling aluminum tins of a turmeric-spiced chickpea and tomato dish (30 cents a tin) to add something to the makeshift picnic.

In the center of the circle of bread-dipping men is the green plastic liter of water.

The conversation turns to their biggest worry: getting paid. Too often, unscrupulous employers promise the going rate for such black-market work – 500 rupees for an eight-hour day, or about $7 – but then fail to pay when the job is done. Next comes the makeshift camp for sleeping they staked out under a highway overpass, and whether or not it will still be there when they return each night.

Always on their mind, they say, are the families they left back in Uttar Pradesh, and whether they’ll make enough over these three months in New Delhi to keep their kids in school. At the mention of children, they readily hold up the three or four fingers it takes to indicate how many each has. They rib a proud Radesh who needs two hands to indicate his seven offspring.

But in these days of high heat, the men must also remember to drink.

“On a normal day I might drink four or five cups of water, but this is not normal,” says Asharam, “so maybe now I drink four or five liters a day. In this heat you have to have water.”

What Asharam and his crew may be finding is that, as heat records topple and heat waves grow longer, remembering to drink more water will become their new normal.

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