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View From The South


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Urvashi Butalia's View From The South

The Shadow Hot and bothered

It’s 45 degrees centigrade. Outside my airconditioned office a fierce, hot wind blasts the heat into your face. My car, parked across the road, is baking in the heat. I step in and immediately jump out: the seat is too hot. I touch the steering wheel: it’s impossible to hold. I open the windows, turn on the airconditioning full blast and wait for the car to cool. Then, windows up and cool air on, I drive off.

Five minutes later I’m stopped dead in a traffic jam. The traffic signals have failed and cars are piled up, fender to bumper, loudly beeping and honking. At the centre of the crossroads there is a young police officer trying to direct the traffic. It’s hopeless, but he perseveres. It’s his job. The tarmac is hot and heat radiates up from it in waves. The wind blows hot dust into his face, filling his eyes and mouth with grit. There’s nothing covering his head apart from a metal helmet – a requirement of the job but a terrible punishment in the midst of an Indian summer. At three in the afternoon the sun seems to be directly overhead. Streams of sweat pour down his face, trickle into his eyes. He’s so busy directing traffic that he doesn’t even have the time to wipe away the sweat. If he stopped frantically whistling and pointing there would be even more chaos on the road.

In my airconditioned car I drive past the sweating policeman; by now it’s cool and wonderful and the heat outside doesn’t really bother me. A day on a job like that can kill you, I think to myself. Then I try to imagine where the young man lives, what his home must be like. The chances are that he lives in a poor, working-class neighbourhood. It’s crowded, several people to a room, dingy, with not enough toilets and with little or no water. If he’s lucky enough to have a family, his wife or sister or mother will wake before sunrise and stand in a queue to fill a bucket or two of water with which they’ll have to make do for the whole day.

Shortage of water
Welcome to Delhi, the capital city of India where we’ve seen temperatures well above 45 degrees this year. Such heat was once a rarity – it has now become a regular feature of our hottest months. This summer more than 1,400 people in India died of heatstroke. Some people simply curled up on the pavement and died when there was no let-up in the heat. Others, waiting for the elusive and fickle rain, eventually collapsed of thirst under a cloudless sky. When the earth is parched and the sky will not give it’s the poor who suffer most. The well-off, like me, live with airconditioners and bottled water and manage to escape the heat as much as possible.

Of course summer in India has always been hot: 40 degrees is not unusual. But if you could get into the shade, or under a fan, you were okay. Now our average temperatures all over the country are some five degrees higher. Accompanying the heat is an acute shortage of water: while the country makes its water available to big, private water-supply companies like Suez Lyonnais, ordinary Indians have less access to potable water.

Heat, like everything else, is relative: the rich feel it less, the poor feel it more. No, let me rephrase that: the rich feel it more. They can’t bear to step into it even for a minute, so they cushion themselves with the comforts money can buy, and protected thus, they don’t die of it. The poor feel it less because they have no choice. They don’t have fans, airconditioners or coolers, nor any protective covering, nor even the luxury of taking a day off work.

In the midst of this crushing summer heat, politicians promise the moon. But few talk about what global warming means to the poor

Dealing with the heat doesn’t only mean trying to stay cool. It also means being without electricity. As summer sets in the load on the electric supply – erratic at the best of times – goes up hugely. There are frequent outages, the generators trip, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that it is not the wealthy areas that have to do without electricity for eight hours at a stretch. Often, there are other consequences: students in schools and colleges have to take exams without fans in darkened classrooms; elevators get jammed between floors and people have to be prised out of them; there’s chaos on the roads.

The global climate is changing. The world is getting hotter – and human actions are to blame. In India we’ve wiped out forests and built sprawling, energy-intensive cities. Pollution-spewing automobiles proliferate like vermin. We’re even getting ready to fill up our rivers and put shopping malls on them. Green areas are destroyed without a thought.

In the midst of this crushing summer heat, politicians promise the moon. But few talk about what global warming means to the poor. What good are cynical promises when there’s no let-up for the poor police officer, no relief for the poor farmer? And when the Earth itself has been laid prostrate?

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher.
She lives in New Delhi.

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New Internationalist issue 360 magazine cover This article is from the September 2003 issue of New Internationalist.
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