A girl selling water recently on a hot summer day in New Delhi, India Image Credit: Reuters

The ides of May was fiery. With 49 degrees Celsius, a comatose Delhi reeled at the unprecedented temperature as the neighbouring city of Gurugram had its own inferno at 48 degrees.

North India barely glimpses a spring, but this year is unlike any. The seamless overnight transition from a biting winter to relentless heat is not a precursor, the early onset of extreme weather conditions is a sign that climate change is not far from our doorstep.

Since the beginning of March in almost 40 districts of the country temperatures of 45 degrees Celsius or more have been logged, India has not seen such scorching heat since the Indian Met Department (IMD) started recording temperatures more than a century ago.

Life has also been disrupted in Assam and Kerala but by heavy rainfall. Vagaries of climate, experts caution, will only intensify in the coming years.

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Image Credit: Shutterstock

A calamitic shortfall of rainfall since March has kept all relief at bay in not just the National Capital Region but also the states of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha.

It is not just the plains, the hill areas of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Uttarakhand have also recorded higher than usual temperatures accompanied by an abnormal rise in farm and forest fires.

The Met Department has asked those with moderate health conditions to stay at home unless unavoidable. But this is privilege in a country where 82 per cent of the workforce is in the unorganised sector, eking a livelihood outdoors.

Labourers, farmers, vendors - the population graph peaks with those whose exposure on the burning asphalt is an unfolding human tragedy.

Lancet Planetary Health rang the alarm bells when it reported that 700,000 annual deaths took place between the years 2009 and 2019 due to abnormal temperatures in India.

Heatwaves are not recognised as a natural disaster, limiting not just relief work but also the ability to mitigate its burden on the poor, who have no choice but to migrate when land becomes unfriendly.

Pushed by adverse climates, almost 60,000 farmers reportedly committed suicide in the country in the last three decades. These figures are likely a conservative estimate as fluctuations in weather conditions have no template except the ability to increase socio economic disparity.

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Parts of India are clocking record high average temperatures. Above, tourists cover themselves to protect themselves from the heat at Taj Mahal in Agra. Image Credit: Yatish Lavania

The U-turn over wheat export ban factors this in, the searing heatwaves have checked output while also exacerbating a power crisis which has brought farmers from Gujarat to Punjab on the streets.

Already staring at parched fields, they also fear the loss of standing crop due to erratic power supply across most Northwestern states.

Coal is used in 70% of energy generation in the country and inventories plummeted after the country recorded its highest ever demand for power on April 26 forcing Indian Railways to cancel passenger trains to prioritise coal carriages.

Ironically implications of carbon- based coal emissions for global warming and pollution are well documented and remain a challenge in India’s transition to clean energy. A crisis of poor planning may be averted for now, but it is the long-term framework and its funding that will hence dictate our short term.

It is not just degrees of suffering, the tenacity and length of the heatwaves are no fear mongering. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body with world’s top scientists, has warned that unless India reduces gas emissions by 2030, it will be irreversibly impacted by climate change.

Another blame game

Amid the blame game between developing and rich countries, India is also in the unenviable position of cleaning up its polluted air which can cause local temperatures to rise further.

Scientists say aerosols including those emitted through vehicular and industrial pollution have so far shielded some impact of greenhouse gases by blocking sunlight, generically dismissed as smog by residents of cities where development has come at a cost.

“Over the last few decades, global warming has been on an accelerated pace and its marks can be seen in any single day of global weather since the 2000s. Generation Z has never lived a day without feeling the influence of global warming,” Roxy Mathew Koll from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology told news agency PTI.

Climate change in India gets buried behind more immediate and tangible headlines, even when the warnings are dire - India is among a handful of countries with the most exposure to extreme heat in the last five years.

Urgent focus is needed on an ecosystem that engages with the private sector and local communities equally with an expanding early warning system. And, most importantly awareness needs to go mainstream.

The melting glaciers, flash floods and record breaking heatwaves all point towards the inevitable. With the needle likely to touch 50 degrees Celsius, like it already has in neighbouring Pakistan which has also seen the hottest March in six decades, this may be one last wake- up call.

The domino effect of the heatwaves is bleak- food insecurity, power outages, water scarcity, economic despair, depleted productivity and a health care system already stretched by Covid. It is going to be a long summer and, this may just be the beginning.