From polling stations to weather stations, the heat is on in India (commentary)

  • Parts of India are facing a heatwave, for which the heat in the state of Kerala is a curtain raiser. Kerala experienced its first recorded heatwave amid the ongoing election campaign.
  • Heatwaves, droughts and floods do not distinguish along political lines. If the destruction is across board, the mitigating action also has to be across political lines, writes Mongabay-India’s Managing Editor, S. Gopikrishna Warrier, in this commentary.
  • Climate change poses economic, social and political challenges, influencing election discourse and policy agendas.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot in the poem The Waste Land. For the 30 million residents of India’s southern state of Kerala, this April was particularly cruel, with the India Meteorological Department (IMD) declaring the first ever recorded heatwave in the state. The heatwave also came at a time when Kerala, along with other parts of the country, is part of the national elections process, with campaigning, public meetings and voting taking place in high temperatures. The ambient heat is expected to continue in the coming days, too, while the political heat is likely to continue until June 4 and beyond.

Every year, summer comes early to Kerala, compared to the other parts of the country. It starts in February, when the rest of the country is still shaking away the winter cold. Located at the southwestern edge of the Indian peninsula, Kerala has to pilot in the southwest monsoon. For that to happen, the state needs to become hotter earlier than the other parts of the country.

By May, when the rest of the country sizzles with summer heat, Kerala usually receives a few pre-monsoon showers and become relatively cooler. In the years of the decades past, when the southwest monsoon would come with regularity, June 1 was considered the date for its onset.

Voting underway in Kerala.
Voting underway in Kerala. The southern state is experiencing its first recorded heatwave amid the ongoing election campaign. Image by S. Gopikrishna Warrier/Mongabay.

It is not the summer itself that surprised the residents of Kerala this year, but its intensity. Experts explain that the current heatwave is due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon prevalent now. By mid-year, El Niño is expected to weaken and change to La Niña. When this combines with the changes expected in air temperatures over the Indian Ocean by mid-year, there is a forecast of above-normal monsoon in 2024. Whether this would mean the possibility of floods is not known at the moment.

However, with ENSO continuing for the coming few weeks, the India Meteorological Department expects heatwave conditions in other parts of the country, too, for which the Kerala heat is a curtain raiser.

Climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology recently posted on social media a map that had a spread of red, indicating a heatwave, over most parts of Asia.

South Asia is a theatre for climate change

Koll, along with scientists from multiple institutions, recently published a book chapter that talks of the Indian Ocean recording the fastest increase in sea temperature. Since the 1950s, the Indian Ocean has been warming at a rate of 0.12 degrees Celsius per decade. Due to redistribution of heat from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, the heat gain in the Indian Ocean represents one quarter of all the ocean warming since the 1990s. The prognosis, using modeling studies, is even more dire, with a 3⁰C heat increase estimated from 2020 to the end of the century.

Koll told Mongabay-India that by 2050 the heat increase is expected to breach the 2⁰C mark (from the Industrial Revolution levels). By this time, the Indian Ocean could even reach a permanent heatwave situation, with it being present for 220 to 250 days in a year, from the present rate of 20 days in a year.

The South Asian monsoon requires the land to be hotter than the sea by a certain degree to help the moisture-laden winds to move inland. If this equilibrium is disturbed with higher temperature of the Indian Ocean, the regularity of the southwest monsoonal system could get disturbed. Instead, this would be replaced with a string of extreme weather events — excessive rainfall over short durations followed by long dry periods.

In August 2019, the then-IMD director general Mrutyunjay Mohapatra told Mongabay-India that over multiple locations in the country, the number of high rainfall days (over 150 millimeter, or 6 inches, in a day) have increased at the cost of moderate and light rainfall days.

The statements by Koll and Mohapatra go on to strengthen the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its fourth (2007) and sixth (2022) assessment reports, which state with confidence that South Asia is on the way to becoming a theater for climate change. Thus, this year’s heatwave — and other extreme weather events — may not be an aberration but the norm in years to come.

Voters brave the heat in West Bengal in April 2006. Image by the Election Commission of India via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Government Open Data License – India).

This has serious economic, social and political implications for the South Asian region, and especially so for India. Even after the contribution of the manufacturing and services sector increasing in India’s gross domestic product pie in the recent decades, a good agricultural harvest is still considered the starting point of the country’s annual economic cycle. Expenditure during Diwali festival still remains the boost from where this annual cycle begins, with the festival itself signifying celebrations after the first major crop harvest.

Erratic monsoons and extreme weather events destroy agriculture in two ways. One, standing crops could die with excessive rains or heat. Two, extreme weather can affect the carefully-bred seeds that are currently being used since India’s Green Revolution, unlike the flexible older crops that were more resilient albeit lower production. When farming suffers, manufacturing and trade suffer in turn.

Election heat in a changing climate

During the elections, discontent that has been simmering for the past five years comes out into the open. That is also the time when communities get an opportunity to meet their elected representatives (or the prospective ones) face to face and bring to the fore issues related to the environment and governance of natural resources. The issues are multifold, depending on geographical locations and the social, economic and political milieu of the region.

Since the election period is also a time when political parties try to convince the voters that they are sensitive to their concerns, environmental issues usually find mention in election manifestos.

For the 2024 national elections, the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leading the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) reiterates the Lifestyle for Environment (LIFE) concept that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced to the world. It talks about increasing energy generation from non-fossil fuels; revitalising rivers; improving air quality; promoting afforestation and agroforestry; protecting the Himalayas; developing coastal climate resilience; expanding green credit; preventing human-animal conflict; and achieving disaster resilience. There is also a chapter focussing on the environment and governance of urban spaces.

The manifesto of the Indian National Congress (INC), the lead party in the opposition alliance, has an entire section on the environment and climate change. The promises listed here include the constitution of an independent Environment Protection and Climate Change Authority; expanding the scope of the existing climate change action plan to a National Climate Resilience Development Mission; launching a Green New Deal Investment Programme to support renewable energy development; establishing a Green Transition Fund to achieve net zero targets; and promoting people’s access to water and democratic sharing of the resource.

Two voters show the indelible ink on their fingers after casting their votes in Tripura in 2018.
Two voters show the indelible ink on their fingers after casting their votes in Tripura in 2018. Image by the Election Commission of India via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Government Open Data License – India).

Irrespective of whichever political grouping or combination that comes to power after June, extreme weather events will continue to become more frequent and more intense. Heatwaves, droughts and floods do not distinguish along political lines. If the destruction is across the board, then the mitigating action also has to be across political lines.

This requires deep, bipartisan introspection and action. Kerala had an opportunity for this a few months after the floods of 2018. The immediate months after an extreme event are usually lost in trading blames — the “you should have” or “you did not” charges. It is only after around three months, after the dust settles (or, in this case, the water recedes) is time for introspection on what were the systemic defects and what can be done to respond to future situations better. With the state divided politically over the Supreme Court’s judgement in the religiously and socially sensitive Sabarimala case, this window of opportunity was totally lost. As a result, if another similar flood were to affect Kerala this year, the response of the state and the people would not be any better than that of 2018.

Elections are a time of such feedback loops and reality checks. It is one of the few opportunities when the political aspirants meet their voters. If this heatwave can help remind the voter and the voted on what needs to be done in the next five years, then the sweating and sweltering now is perhaps not in vain.

Banner image: Voters in West Bengal’s Dinhata constituency, adjacent to Bangladesh, in 2016. Image by the Election Commission of India via Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Government Open Data License – India).

This commentary was first published by Mongabay’s India team here on our Indian site on May 3, 2024.

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