How slum-dwellers bear the brunt of summer heat

BY | Saturday, 8 June, 2024
(PC: Alfarnas Solkar/ Unsplash)

The authors are Aalok Khandekar, IIT Hyderabad; Anant Maringanti, Teja Malladi; and, Swastik Harish, Hyderabad Urban Lab in Hyderabad


Existing Heat Action Plans prioritise short-term relief and are insufficiently localised

The millions of people living in slums across Asian cities are already facing a disproportionately higher share of urban hazards. The increasing frequency of heat waves is just one of them. But it is getting worse each year.

As urban heat islands and heatwaves engulf them year after year, their lack of access to homes with cooling systems and insulation, and the fact that the densely populated settlements that they typically inhabit have poor air circulation is becoming a matter of serious concern.

They have nowhere to turn as temperatures regularly climb above 45 degrees Celsius for several days at a time.

For Vijetha, a young female resident of Singareni Colony in Hyderabad — an informal settlement of about 1500 houses — stoicism is the default stance. “We just have to grit our teeth and tolerate it for three months,” she says.

“April, May and a couple of weeks of June. I don’t want to make investments for … an air cooler that will be untouched for the rest of the year, taking up space. We have tolerated the summer heat year after year. We’ll do the same now.”

But summers are becoming increasingly harsh. Researchers note that in several parts of the country, “the combination of high temperature and humidity [have] brought the experience of heat close to the understood scientific limits of human survivability.”

That means residents in places like Singareni Colony are forced to adapt with whatever resources they have readily available at hand.

They have been responding to the heat in various ways. These include leveraging water-based passive evaporative cooling methods such as cooling water in earthen pots, using wet gunny bags to cover vegetables and keep them fresh, and frequent mopping of floors.

There is also an increased intake of ‘cold’ foods (cucumbers, watermelons, curds, buttermilk, lemon juice, ragi malt and generally reduced eating, especially of non-vegetarian food. People wear clothes made from thin and light-coloured fabrics and also use medicinal herbs to limit the impacts of heat.

The effective use of shade is another adaptation strategy. Many congregate in shaded spaces outdoors during the day to find respite from the hot indoors and perform menial jobs such as peeling garlic and ginger that are then supplied to local markets via middlemen.

Despite yielding less income than other forms of work, this allows women in the community in particular to carry out childcare, domestic work, water collection and other tasks while also sustaining community ties.

Water and shade become critical elements in reducing the effects of extreme heat. This is the starting point for a localised imagination of thermal governance that is both economical and resilient.

While exposure to heat affects everyone, it does not do so equally.

Some communities are affected more than others. Our analysis of satellite-based Land Surface Temperatures reveals that the temperature in Singareni, a low-lying settlement, is nearly 2-2.5 degrees warmer than its immediate surroundings.

The slum sprang to life in the 1990s and is now home to 8000 people, mostly migrants from the countryside seeking work in the city. Houses are small and cramped with poor layouts, little ventilation and little functional differentiation between spaces of cooking, dwelling and sleeping.

Makeshift homes built from cheap and locally available material, such as ‘asbestos’ sheets, tarpaulin, and more infrequently, bricks and concrete, constitute Singareni’s housing stock.

These structures are especially susceptible to heat. The use of cement-asbestos sheets, for example, makes it impossible to cut windows, severely limiting ventilation. Indeed, kutcha [temporary] houses in the settlement effectively offer no insulation from the outdoors, rendering standard guidance of staying indoors in case of extreme heat events inappropriate in such spaces.

Utility connections are tenuous. The settlement is connected to the city’s sewerage system, but electricity is illegally tapped while running water is a pipe dream. Residents are dependent on municipal tankers for collecting water which they store in large blue drums lining the main streets, a task mainly performed by women and children.

Being engaged in occupations that require being outdoors and undertaking heavy manual labour also makes Singareni residents more vulnerable to heat impacts. Cooling devices like air conditioners are largely absent. Most residents depend on water (for drinking, frequent bathing, splashing on faces, and mopping) as a primary cooling resource. Some rare ones use evaporative ‘desert’ coolers.

Does policy meet reality?

In India, there has already been significant policy attention to extreme heat: beginning with the Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan (HAP) developed in 2015, there now exist close to 40 such plans across various cities, states and regions in the country.

This is a noteworthy achievement. Collectively, the heat plans identify an array of relief measures, interventions as well as mechanisms for coordination among diverse stakeholders that are important to mitigate the worst impacts of heat exposure.

Yet, as we have argued, HAPs as instruments of heat governance are limited on at least three counts: first, they institutionalise a ‘disaster imaginary’ of extreme heat, prioritising attention to acute events and short-term relief while obscuring chronic, structural and longer-term causes and impacts of heat exposure.

Second, they are insufficiently localised, often following largely formulaic and programmatic orientations (modelled on the Ahmedabad HAP) such that they remain poor guides for on-ground responses to extreme heat. Relatedly, they discount the many ways in which vulnerable populations are already adapting to soaring temperatures, positing the state, rather than individuals and communities, as the locus of adaptation.

Our research highlights, instead, the need for and potential of developing community-based HAPs that can build on local contexts, relationships and knowledge. Drawing on theorists of ‘southern urbanism’, we understand community-based HAPs as necessarily incremental in their approach and building on already existing practices and relationships.

Such community-based HAPs are necessary complements to standardised, top-down and templated HAPs that have been developed by various state agencies.

This recognition, however, is only a starting point. Significant challenges need to be addressed to realise the promise of community-based HAPs.

A reframing of heat relief as a community right is in order. While Singareni residents talk about significant disruptions from rising temperatures, they tend to understand it as something they simply have to deal with, as described in Vijetha’s case previously.

That this can be an issue around which claims for community rights can coalesce does not figure in their conception of heat.

In addition, there is a tendency to focus on acute heat events, making it difficult to keep in view the structural, chronic and long-term drivers and impacts of heat. And yet, these are precisely what contribute to the uneven impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable communities, enacting a form of what literature scholar Rob Nixon has called ‘slow violence’.

Accounting for the impacts of extreme heat on vulnerable groups, thus, also needs new ways of understanding the links between climate and society.

Aalok Khandekar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology/ Sociology and Affiliated Faculty at the Department of Climate Change at Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad. His current research investigates climate and environmental governance in the urban global south.

Anant Maringanti is Director of Hyderabad Urban Lab Foundation and member of the international team studying the impact of heat on off-grid localities in cities of the global south.

Teja Malladi is Associate Director, Spatial Data Analytics at Hyderabad Urban Lab. Teja specialises in applying spatial data science techniques to monitor changes in the urban environment, measure spatial inequalities and to reduce disaster risks.

Swastik Harish is an urban development and capacity-building expert with more than 22 years of experience, with expertise in land and housing for the urban poor, design and the development sector, public healthcare systems and climate change.


This research has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, UK.

(This article has been republished from 360info under Creative Commons licence).

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