Photo by madrones.

What living in New Delhi taught me about climate change

Spoiler: for many, it’s already here

Medhavi Gupta
May 27 · 6 min read

When I am in Australia, climate change is an abstract concept. I don’t really notice a difference as I move from my air-conditioned home to my air-conditioned car to my air-conditioned office. Even when I’m waiting for a train or bus in the summer, the heat isn’t so stifling - there is a bit of a breeze, the skies are blue, and the air is clear. There are elevators and escalators and water stations to make being outside easier. This is the case in many rich countries.

But being in Delhi this summer, I’ve started to notice a difference. I’ve started to notice the way day to day life is made harder by the warming climate. And this is the reality for 46 million people living in the area.

The summers are becoming brutal

Delhi summer heat has always been bad, but they are now getting worse. Stepping outside is like walking into a wall of heat. There is no breeze, no respite. Even standing in a shaded spot doesn’t help, the heat is all-engulfing.

And although the heat is affecting me and my health, I am one of the lucky ones. I don’t have to face the heat all that much — I can walk from my home right into an Uber. I can afford to hang out in places like indoor bars and restaurants and my office has an air conditioner.

Many street vendors continue working through the summer to make ends meet. Photo by: Photographing Travis.

But that is not the case for most — whoever cannot afford these luxuries must carry on in the heat. I’ve seen whole families sitting pressed together on a motorbike, sweating in the sun as the traffic stands still. There are vegetable vendors pushing their carts up hills to reach the market in 40-degree weather. Roadside sellers have no choice but to continue selling their wares outdoors to make ends meet, as most of them live hand to mouth — these are the shoemakers, the fruit sellers, the handicraft sellers.

The heat also makes food unsafe, and not everyone can afford the food that has been protected from the heat. The safe food has been preserved through the cold chain— this meat and veggies have been shipped in cold storage from the farm to the store. But this food is more expensive. Poorer families are often forced to purchase substandard food and are more likely to get sick as a result.

Even elderly people must continue working in conditions detrimental to their health. Photo by: juggadery.

And what about the street kids? The ones that run around without shoes on the roadsides. The concrete roads begin to emanate heat, rising off the burning surfaces. These kids continue to sell items, play and wander in these conditions. Many children of labourers, some as young as 6 months old, sit and play in the dirt in the sun while their parents continue to work.

This is the reality of climate change — hotter and longer summers mean more exposure to these horrid conditions during the year. And some people cannot afford an escape from it.

Unpredictable rains wreak havoc

Rains are becoming more unpredictable, and this has all sorts of consequences. When I was in Delhi in April, it rained for a whole two weeks. This is unheard of for this time of year, and no one was prepared.

People didn’t have the time to make the required preparations — especially those living in slums. I saw a roadside seller lose all of his garments when the rain began suddenly, because he hadn’t set up his tarp roof. Slums are not the ideal places to live regardless— families live in makeshift tents with little protection from the elements. To prepare for monsoon, some people build their tents on top of wooden planks to raise them from flooding, or may put sand sacks around their tents to stop leakage. Many people may not have the time to do this when the rains are unpredictable, flooding their homes.

Slum dwellers don’t have time to prepare for unpredictable rains. Photo by nevil zaveri.

One person I interviewed told me how they lost almost a whole day’s earnings because of unexpected rain. Many people earn in cash — sometimes just $10 a day for a typical roadside stall, and this is all earned in paper notes. Getting suddenly rained on, he wasn’t able to put his cash earnings anywhere, so he shoved it inside his clothes and curled over it and hoped for the best.

Extreme weather events are destructive

Extreme weather events are becoming more and more frequent, such as the hailstorm in Delhi in February. This is causing greater damage to crops and property, and the people who live on the streets or in makeshift housing are the most vulnerable.

These extreme events damage the only assets people have to earn a living, such as auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws, and often these people aren’t able to repair or purchase new ones on demand. This weather also impacts road infrastructure, increasing traffic for days and stopping movement. This prevents people from getting to work.

Rickshaws are often damaged due to bad weather, spelling bad news to families dependent on them. Photo by: zacdavies.

Again, it’s the people who are least able to afford missing work who are struggling to get back on their feet after damages. They are also less likely to have insurance to cover their property or loss to business. Daily labourers miss days of income when construction stops.

These disruptive events are going to be more frequent — and we don’t have the infrastructure to cope. This would require an overhaul in how Delhi and other cities are designed. Better drainage, income insurance for people (which is going to be more expensive as extreme events get more common), and proper homes are necessary.

What can you do?

We all know about the individual changes we can make to reduce runaway climate change — using public transport, using the AC less if we can, saving on power, switching to solar panels at home. Eating less beef and lamb is also impactful and can be replaced it with ‘clean meat’ products.

But systematic changes are needed to really make a difference. This means voting for the political parties who have plans for climate change. Policies like putting a tax on carbon incentivise companies to reduce their emissions. Governments who are investing in renewable energy and stopping the development of coal plants should be preferred.

You can join advocacy groups and NGOs that campaign to the government on climate change issues.

A great place to start is Project drawdownthis website lists all of the different initiatives, programs and actions that can reduce climate change, all in one place. For example, one of the best things you can do is support organisations that educate and empower girls, because this leads them to having fewer children, which is super effective in reducing emissions in the long term. See if you can work on one of these solutions or support an organisation that is working on one of these.

But, for the sake of the millions of people who cannot escape the heat, we need to start doing something now.

Kids play in the hot dirt while their parents work. Photo by Frank Ritchie.

Medhavi Gupta

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PhD Scholar in Global Health | Indian Australian | Avid Reader | Advocate | Food Lover | Friendly Devil's Advocate