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

This summer broke all temperature records, but heat affects those working outside, such as autorickshaw drivers in Delhi, much more.

As heat wave conditions prevail in Delhi and parts of north India, authorities have advised citizens to stay indoors or in the shade during the mid-day hours when the sun is the strongest and avoid strenuous activity from noon to 4 p.m., to protect themselves from heat stress-related illnesses. However, avoiding the summer heat is simply not an option for the auto drivers of Delhi as they need to continue working under these extreme conditions due to financial necessity. Their earnings are already facing a hit as fewer people are either stepping out or taking autos because of the heat.

“I simply can’t afford to remain idle despite the risks,” says Shukhjeevan Mishra, who has been driving the iconic green-yellow (hari-peeli) auto for nearly 25 years. “It is a matter of survival. I am the only earning member in my family.”

Mishra, who works from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., shares how his income has taken a hit as there are not many customers on their road these days. “Our lives are on the road. We spend nine to 10 hours, if not more, on the road,” says Mishra, who comes to Delhi from Faridabad, in the National Capital Region. He laments how the frequency of customers has gone down, especially from noon to late afternoon when heat wave conditions are at their peak. Business usually picks up during the evening, but by then, the drivers have already lost three to four hours of work.

According to the Delhi Statistical Handbook, put out by the government of Delhi in March, approximately 93,654 auto rickshaws operated solely within Delhi, transporting people across the capital. This figure does not include other cities in the National Capital Region (NCR), such as Noida and Faridabad. Additionally, Delhi had 118,506 other passenger vehicles, including open e-rickshaws.

A towel tied to the rearview mirror of an auto which is used to cover face for respite from the heat.
A towel tied to the rearview mirror of an auto in Delhi. Drivers often use a wet towel or a cloth to cover their face for respite from the heat. Pic: Pallavi Ghosh.

Aside from heat, one of the primary problems that the auto drivers face is loss of business to ride-hailing apps. Birender Singh, another auto driver, chimes in, saying, “People prefer cabs that have ACs in this heat. No one steps out in the heat. We are the ones who are idling under the shade of a tree here.” According to Singh, customers are available during office hours until 11 a.m, after which the number of travellers goes down. It is not before evening that the number improves. Singh is on the road until 9 p.m. Some days, this gets stretched to 10 p.m.

Additionally, the closure of schools in Delhi, before schedule, due to extreme heat, has also led to a loss in customers. Schools in Delhi had been instructed by the Directorate of Education to observe summer vacation from May 11 to June 30 for this academic year. According to both Mishra and Singh, the closure of schools has led to a loss of income, especially in the afternoon hours after school.

So, will adjusting their working hours help? Both Mishra and Singh say “No.”

Restricting working hours to early morning and evening hours and beyond may not be practical, they say. Mishra, for example, takes about an hour to reach Delhi and has to factor in the time taken to and from his residence. Even if they are not driving, the auto drivers are still out on the road, and in the heat, in their idle time. There are not enough shaded resting places where auto drivers can take a break. Radheshyam Nagar, vice-president of the Rashtriya Rajdhani Auto Taxi Chalak Union, says that there are around 450 designated parking zones across Delhi, but not all drivers know where these are located. Even when they do, such zones may or may not be shaded. Additionally, the number of such parking zones are too less compared to the number of auto rickshaws plying on Delhi’s roads (estimated to be at least 100,000), says Nagar.

Read more: Heat: The silent killer that threatens both body and mind

The auto rickshaw drivers need to improvise if they want to rest, but that comes with its own difficulties. “We do take shelter under trees sometimes, but there are challenges. We try to find spots and rest, but we run the risk of being fined,” says Singh, who adds that drivers like him often get a challan (notice of a traffic offence) for parking in undesignated spots. So even if the drivers spot some shade and park their auto rickshaw there for a while, they cannot stay for long. Some auto rickshaw drivers say they spend their idle hours in residential areas, where typically there is enough green cover. However, not all neighbourhoods are “friendly,” says Mishra.

In such a situation, where even breaks are taken in the unrelenting heat, there is exhaustion and fatigue. If they want to work in the early and late hours of the day and take a break in the afternoon, they land up extending their time outdoors, which is not worth the returns. “We get exhausted. We are also human. After spending hours on the road, with little break from the heat, there is hardly any energy left. If the weather is pleasant, one can still push and clock some extra hours, but it is simply not possible under such conditions,” says Singh.

Auto rickshaws lined up, waiting for passengers as Delhi heats up.
Auto rickshaws lined up outside Kalkaji Mandir metro station waiting for passengers. Pic: Pallavi Ghosh.

On May 29, particularly when most of Delhi NCR was simmering at above 45 degrees Celsius, many auto rickshaw drivers struggled to keep up with their daily earnings. Jeetendra Kumar, who has been driving an auto rickshaw for 12 years, says he could not get a single customer throughout the day and kept riding from one place to the other in search of some income. As temperatures lowered due to rain in the evening, he finally found two to three passengers. Some, like Mishra, however, did not even get that many. Mishra started his day early at 9 a.m. but yet had to end the day with a meagre earning of Rs. 100 as he could ferry only one customer throughout the day.

More than just lost wages

Mishra says he is thankful that he has not taken ill due to the heat so far. “By the grace of God, I have never had any heat-related illness in all these years. I am not diabetic, and there is no history of hypertension either. So, I keep going,” he says.

Bijender Singh, however, shares a different story. Singh has been driving an auto rickshaw since 1989. Last year, he had to be hospitalised after showing signs of heat exhaustion such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, and cramps. The doctor had advised him to rest, so he was off the road for a month. “I lost a month’s income,” he says. Despite this experience, Singh is back, risking it all on Delhi’s streets under heat wave conditions.

no water in a water kiosk even as heat wave conditions continued in Delhi
A water kiosk near Kalkaji Mandir Temple where auto drivers refill their bottle. There was no water here on May 30, one of the hottest days in Delhi this summer. Pic: Pallavi Ghosh.

Drivers usually carry their own water bottles, but it is not sufficient for the whole day. There are plenty of options where one can access cool drinking water, such as water kiosks, ashrams, gurdwaras, temples, mosques, water vendors, and private ventures. “We depend on publicly accessible drinking water for our sustenance during work hours,” says Singh. However, there are issues in this respect as well. Mishra recalls an incident when he had filled his bottle from an ashram and found a dead insect. “I couldn’t drink water from there after that,” he says. “If nothing else, we simply buy packaged mineral water,” he adds.

Despite the health risks, reduced income remains a primary concern for the autowallahs of Delhi.

No easy solutions, say experts

Adaptive measures such constructing parking areas or sheds equipped with basic amenities like water and toilets would offer some respite. However, the prospect of building climate-resilient cities remains a distant aspiration.

Auto rickshaw drivers waiting for potential customers while looking for shade near the Kalkaji Mandir metro station. Image by Pallavi Ghosh.

As Dimple Behal, an urban planner specialising in inequalities, development, and environment, says, “There needs to be a larger vision when it comes to climate resilient models for cities. From the governance perspective, much of the work in this area tends to be in silos. Greater collaboration between the government departments could help with a holistic, long-term action plan tailored as per the local context.”

Delhi has considerable green cover, but with temperatures touching near 50 degrees in May, coupled with environmental factors such as a heat wave, shielding vulnerable populations, especially those employed in the gig economy, including the autowallahs, as the auto rickshaw drivers are known, becomes extremely challenging.

Read more: “We have to adapt to heat waves by changing how we function during summer”: Environmentalist Avikal Somvanshi

Even though adaptive measures like shelters and enclosed parking spaces may offer immediate relief, experts assert that addressing heat and other extreme weather conditions comprehensively demands meticulous planning and foresight.

Jaya Dhindaw, Executive Program Director of Sustainable Cities at the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Director of WRI India Ross Center, explains, “These (sheds, shelters, and enclosed parking spaces) are necessary to provide shade, temporary relief from heat stress, first-aid (ORS, etc.) and breaks for maintaining vehicle performance and reducing heat exposure. From the standpoint of infrastructure planning, such projects will have to become the norm, given that heat and other climate hazards will only become more severe and frequent.”

She underscores three pivotal aspects: space requirements integrated into planning and building norms and regulations, capital and maintenance cost allocation, and ensuring designs and materials facilitate passive cooling, and energy efficiency and entail low maintenance burdens.

“Integrating these structures into urban development plans can significantly enhance urban resilience to extreme heat conditions,” says Dhindaw.

For auto rickshaw drivers, advancements in the automotive industry could yield benefits. For instance, manufacturers could enhance vehicle designs by incorporating reflective and insulating materials to mitigate heat accumulation, develop smart parking solutions directing drivers to cool areas and raise awareness regarding the impacts of heat, methods to maintain vehicle coolness, and strategies to combat heat stress. Manufacturers can also contribute to building climate-resilient cities by sponsoring community cooling projects, such as greening initiatives or installing public cooling stations, experts say.

“There are examples of several vehicle manufacturers that have contributed to cooling in cities/communities. There are greening initiatives by Toyota and Nissan in Japan, Ford, and General Motors on urban forests and green roofing. Similarly, Volkswagen and Hyundai have contributed to creating green zones and parks around their facilities to reduce urban heat islands and create liveable environments,” explains Dhindaw.

Experts agree that several sectoral efforts will need to converge to address high temperatures and those that need to be in them to make a livelihood.

(This story was first published on Mongabay. It has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.)

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