Inclusivity is pivotal to measures against heat, says urban planner Jaya Dhindaw

Urban researcher Jaya Dhindaw, highlights the need for reforms in building and labour practices to protect the most vulnerable against heat.

Across India, people have been suffering from extremely high temperatures, with some places experiencing multiple heat waves. The heat stress has been so acute that it has led to several deaths.

During such extreme weather events, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issues alerts. Advisories are also given out, asking people not to step out during the hottest part of the afternoon. But for many, staying indoors is not an option and as in any calamity, the worst affected are those that have the least protection — many of whom work in the informal sector. Others face equally harsh conditions indoors, which are detrimental to their health.

According to the Economic Survey, 2021-2022, approximately 43.99 crore people were employed in the unorganised sector in 2019-20. A range of professions from farming to construction work involves outdoor work. Besides this, hawkers, pushcart vendors, delivery personnel, fruit, vegetable and flower sellers, domestic workers, and a host of others are exposed to the sun at its harshest.

Mumbai is currently witnessing many infrastructure projects at various stages of completion, such as the Coastal Road, Mumbai Metro, and the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link (MTHL). To what extent are these new constructions contributing to the protection of outdoor workers and pedestrians from the heat?

In the second part of her interview Jaya Dhindaw, an urban development professional and researcher, who works as Executive Program Director, Sustainable Cities And Director, WRI India Ross Center, tells us how urban design and policy should be informed by the changing climate and the urgent need to protect the most vulnerable populations in our cities. You can read the first part of Jaya’s interview with Citizen Matters here.

Jaya Dhindaw,  development professional
Jaya Dhindaw is an urban development professional and researcher.
Pic credit: Jaya Dhindaw

The heat poses particular challenges for people who have to necessarily walk or work outdoors. So, how should urban planning respond to their plight?

Over 80% of India’s economy is informal. So that’s the amount of people, out of the about 500 million workforce, who are mostly outdoors. Within that population, there are elderly people, working women and those with different kinds of health ailments who have to step out. They are lucky, if they can find a shaded area — like a spot for a vendor to set up their cart. Such spaces are often contested in an urban space, where land is so constrained. People are often driven away, or they lack the right licences or permissions to conduct their activities. 

Recent studies show that if people don’t have a cool environment at night, it affects their health. It’s true for all of us. If it is not cooler when we sleep, our body is not able to recover from the heat stress that we experience during the day. So, if one has an underlying condition such as hypertension, cardiac problems or other health issues, they may get exacerbated. This can cause an increase in mortality.  


Read more: Delhi heat impact: Heat wave hits earnings, health of auto rickshaw drivers


What factors should guide our approach to providing protection to people, who face the worst of the heat?

Inclusivity is something that we’ll have to think about deeply, as our economy runs because of these informal workers, even though they contribute to half of the GDP. It is because of them our houses run, and we are able to work. 

We have to look at how we protect these workers integral to our city and our lives. When it comes to community resilience, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if you don’t secure that, eventually it is not going to work out for anyone. There are social safety nets that we need to put in place for them, and we need to look at long-term and short-term solutions to make sure that they are able to earn their livelihoods in a way that does not lead to loss of productivity and health.

What measures can city administration employers take to protect these vulnerable populations?

There are many things that we need to do, starting in the immediate term. We must consider building shelters, providing  shaded areas, primary health care centres, water and sanitation facilities and making them accessible to all members of the informal economy, along with raising awareness.  

This applies to everyone. People should know about the impact of heat conditions and different types of heat waves, and how they can protect themselves. So raising awareness is extremely important. 

People resting at Napean Greens
Shaded places where people can get respite from the sun are necessary. Pic: Shruti Gokarn

We need to map urban heat islands or hotspots and consider various development forms. This is where the provision of blue-green infrastructure becomes crucial. Reinstating shaded areas, providing access to parks, and opening up spaces that are often closed during the day are essential. These are our public commons; meant for the people, and must remain open for the larger part of the day for all to access and get respite from the searing heat.

Apart from that, informal economy workers should be provided with financial support through social safety nets. A lot of exploitative practices also abound in the informal sector. And the question is, how do we take cognisance of that and make sure that even the lowest paid worker has some kind of social security in terms of healthcare and well-being. These people are suffering the brunt of something that they haven’t caused or contributed to at all. We, as a society, have an obligation to keep them secure.


Read more: Bengaluru’s Labour Stands present a highly exploitative and informal hiring market


Advisories are given out asking people not to step out at certain hours. That is not really possible.

Advisories are given out. For example, in the construction sector, there are places in Gujarat, where workers are advised to cease all construction activities between 11 am and 3 pm and asked to work later in the evening. So, some sectors or workers are able to have the option of staggered hours.  

In the case of diamond workers in Surat, they staggered their hours, so that they were able to work towards the later part of the evening or night instead of the daytime. For the bhajiwala (vegetable seller) or a vendor on the street, this is not possible. We need to think about what can we do to support these workers, so that they’re able to sustain a livelihood, and at the same time get a respite from extreme heat conditions.

What types of infrastructural provisions can be implemented to improve the quality of life of people who spend extended hours out in the sun?

During the day when most people are conducting their business, they should have access to sheltered spaces to rest, clean water to drink and primary health care centres or health care facilities close at hand. Can we plan for several such spaces in close proximity of workers and just make access to these places easier? The option to take a break every few hours and cool down will help those, who are out in the extreme heat continuously for 8–10 hours.

This requires a new kind of thinking and infrastructure, be it shelters in school, public institutional areas or access to green spaces with trees and water. We need to intentionally integrate these green corridors and relief spaces at the neighbourhood scale, incorporating them into building and planning norms, ensuring they are within a five to ten-minute walking distance from where people conduct their businesses.

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