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    Heat Wave in India Poses Risk to Vulnerable Dalit Community

    's unusually severe heat wave is suspected to have killed more than 200 people and made tens of thousands ill.

    India's unusually severe heat wave has killed more than 200 people and made tens of thousands ill so far. Amid these extreme conditions, there are concerns about the country's marginalised people.

    A nationwide heat wave that began in May has brought unprecedented temperatures to northern and western India .

    The India Meteorological Department issued red alerts at the end of May warning about the “very high likelihood” that many people would experience heat illness and heat stroke, and urging “extreme care” for vulnerable individuals.

    Despite the heat wave, however, Kanchan Devi is forced to make her living outdoors, baking bricks in the state of Haryana.

    Temperature warnings do little for informal laborers such as Devi. The twenty-something-year-old only has a piece of cloth wrapped around her head to protect her from the sun.

    Devi, who belongs to the Dalit community — a historically marginalized group from the lowest level of India's centuries-old discriminatory caste hierarchy — squats for hours at a time as she works at the furnace to produce bricks. Last month, Devi experienced dizziness at work during the heatwave and was subsequently hospitalized due to low blood pressure.

    ‘Risking our lives'

    A report by the Center for Labour and Action found that over 50% of the workers at the 21 brick kilns it surveyed were Dalits.

    “Our lives are always at risk,” said Raheb Rajput, a Dalit construction worker in New Delhi, who told DW that he lost his cousin to the heat wave in May. “It is getting hotter with every passing year.”

    Nearly 25,000 people are believed to have experienced heatstroke during India's summer season, which runs from March through May, the news website ThePrint reported ,citing government data.

    The National Alliance of People's Movements, a civil rights organization, demanded that this year's extreme heat be declared a disaster under India's Disaster Management Act, 2005.

    Is caste a heat vulnerability factor in India?

    Several studies and media reports highlight the plight of workers in the unorganized sector, which represents a huge chunk of the Indian labor force, especially during sweltering summers — but caste has rarely been recognized as a factor that contributes to heat vulnerability.

    Experts say socioeconomic factors can have an impact on people's vulnerability to heat. A study by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) revealed that occupational heat exposure exacerbates social inequalities.

    “Research suggests that caste-based division of labor continues to exist in India's modern market ,” said Arpit Shah, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bengaluru, one of India's most-populous cities.

    Shah's ongoing research explores the relationship between caste and occupational heat exposure.

    “Construction workers and sanitation workers are disproportionately likely to be from the marginalized caste groups. Since these occupations require more outdoor work, there is greater risk because of heat waves,” Shah said.

    By some accounts, 90% of the workforce in India is employed in the informal sector. A massive proportion of the workers in the informal sector belongs to the Dalit community, Scheduled Tribes and other “lower” caste groups, according to a 2020 report by the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.

    Challenges faced by brick kiln workers

    Most laborers at brick kilns are migrants who live in shanties constructed by stacking up bricks on top of each other, with tin sheets or tarpaulin used for the roof.

    At times, the migrant workers stay with their families, including children, at the site of the kiln in severely hot temperatures.

    Devi said she slept in the field at night. “It is hotter inside our tin-roofed shanty,” she said.

    Most of the shanties lack basic amenities such as fans and light bulbs. Many of the workers DW spoke with said they arranged for fans on their own.

    Some employers fail to provide even drinking water. Laborers are forced to search for water in nearby areas, and this scarcity also puts them at risk.

    The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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