Episodes of extreme heat are now recognized as a regular feature of Indian summers. They have been occurring with increasing frequency and duration over the last decade. Due to the deaths associated with them, these ‘heat waves’ have become legible to policy makers largely within a disaster management framework. While this is a welcome development, from an urban standpoint, many challenges remain. For example, as we argue elsewhere (Khandekar, Cross, and Maringanti, Forthcoming), a disaster framing delimits attention to discrete moments of extreme heat events, rather than attending to how differential impacts to thermal exposure build up gradually over time based on individual and household characteristics as well as invisible structurally embedded risks. They are also insufficiently localized, making them poor guides for on-the-ground action.

Of particular interest to our research team are approaches to govern heat from the perspective of the urban poor. Based on our study of the experience of heat in informal settlements in Hyderabad, India over the last two years, we argue that relief from heat should be seen as a matter of entitlement. While market and state based solutions are possible and desirable, it is important to also recognize that communities have ways of providing for themselves and these mechanisms for developing their own local solutions need to be supported with policies and programs that make necessary resources available to them. In our view, such community empowerment measures present highly economical and localized starting points for imagining and implementing thermal governance—not as substitutes to larger-scale initiatives or the development of adequate infrastructure, but as crucial precursors that will help in developing more robust responses.

As part of the Cool Infrastructures project, our research team investigated the impacts of rising temperatures in Hyderabad from the perspective of the urban poor. A rich body of literature has documented the uneven distribution of climatic risk burdens (cf. Thomas et al., 2018): our focus has been on understanding how these are configured and responded to in the context of extreme heat in the city of Hyderabad. During our field research, we worked especially intensively in one informal urban settlement in south-eastern Hyderabad. This settlement was first established in the early 2000s when a local political party organized a land occupation campaign on a parcel of land with disputed ownership. At present it comprises approximately 1500 houses that are home to over 10,000 people. Residents in the settlement are recent migrants into the city from surrounding regions and carry out an array of daily wage occupations including construction, electrical, plumbing, and auto-rickshaw driving work.[1]

Aerial View

Aerial View of the Informal Settlement. Source: Authors.

Houses in this settlement are typically small and often consist of a single room that includes living, sleeping, cooking, and toilet areas. Much of the housing stock comprises kuccha [temporary] houses made from ‘asbestos’ (cement) sheets for walls, and asbestos or tarpaulin sheets as roofing material. A smaller number of pukka (permanent) houses are made of brick walls. Following two major fires in the settlement in 2005 and 2008 residents began to avoid inflammable material such as wood and thatched bamboo as housing and roofing materials. This transition has meant that houses are now less susceptible to fire outbreaks. At the same time, however, they now trap much more heat, and during the summers, indoor environments are more rather than less hot than the outdoors.

The settlement exists in an infrastructurally ambiguous space: the absence of land tenure means that residents constantly fear eviction. Given this insecurity, they are also reluctant to invest in a better housing stock[2]. This tenuous location in the city results in ad hoc connections to the urban infrastructural grid. For example, most houses in the settlement have toilets that are connected to the city’s sewerage system. Electricity poles and lines run across the boundary of the settlement. However, there are no formal electricity connections to houses in the settlement: residents tap into the grid illegally and their connections remain unmetered, since metering would lend a certain degree of legitimacy to the settlement. Functioning water lines were once present but have been mostly disconnected sometime in the 2000s; only a few taps that are connected directly to the city’s water line remain operational today. In other words, services and infrastructures that are claimed as a matter of right by other habitations in the city are not readily available in this informal settlement. As a result, infrastructures and services are constantly being patched together and repaired, resulting in the proliferation of what anthropologist Jamie Cross (2017) describes as “off-grid infrastructural assemblages.”

Against this background, we have come to recognize water and shade as two critical resources for people in the settlement to mitigate the effects of heat. In what follows, we briefly describe each of these.

In the absence of piped water, residents rely primarily on municipal water tanker trucks for their everyday water needs. These tankers typically service the settlement on alternate days between 8.00 am to 2.00 pm. In practice, however, the actual schedule of delivery is much more erratic, and usually women—and sometimes children—have to stay put to collect water for their households whenever the tankers arrive. Water from the tankers is typically stored in large blue plastic drums that are lined up in clusters at different points in the settlement. From here, water is carried back into individual homes in buckets, pots, and other such containers. Some women in the community complain about back and joint pains that they attribute to having to frequently transport water to their homes. Sometimes, people use electric motors to draw and transport water from the drums to their houses, ironically simulating the flow of piped municipal water. When the tankers fail to supply for any reason, residents have to go to great lengths to secure water for themselves, depending on others who might have some excess water to spare, or queuing up for long hours to draw small quantities of water from the few remaining taps or borewells in the settlement. Securing water for everyday needs is an everyday preoccupation in this settlement.

Water sourced thus is crucial for many everyday activities including cooking, cleaning, and bathing. In fact, hot months put extra demands on the need for water. Frequent bathing or splashing water on the face to cool down is a common technique to find some respite from the heat. Various evaporative cooling techniques are also commonplace: washing the floor with water, hanging wet curtains, and sometimes, using “desert” (evaporative) coolers are routinely encountered in such spaces. Use of clay pots to store drinking water and use of wet gunny bags to preserve fresh vegetables are yet other instances where evaporative cooling techniques are deployed. More than anything else, then, residents in the settlement depend on and deploy water in various ways to cope with harsh summer temperatures.

Like water, shade is also an important resource. A common economic activity that women in the community undertake is to peel ginger and garlic which is supplied via intermediaries to local supermarkets and other food-based businesses. Women in the community are aware that this activity pays considerably less than what they could otherwise earn via daily wage work, but it has the advantage of allowing them to stay put in the settlement, attending to childcare, domestic work, and indeed, water collection, even as they earn some albeit reduced wages. Given that indoor spaces in the settlement tend to be both dark and hot, garlic and ginger peeling is frequently undertaken outdoors in shaded spaces, sometimes just beyond the thresholds of houses, and at others, in communal gathering spaces such as under the shades of some large trees in the settlement. To us, this underscores three significant insights: first, like water, shade is a key element in securing relief from heat in such contexts; second, women in the settlement perform “phatic labor” (Elyachar, 2010) on an everyday basis that helps maintain community ties crucial for securing access to resources such as water, which in turn helps secure some degree of thermal comfort; and third, the socio-material relations through which thermal adaptation is actualized are fundamentally gendered.

Soaring temperatures and intensified heat waves across the South Asian region have meant that the problem of heat has been receiving significant governance attention in recent years. In India, one index of this is the rapid proliferation of Heat Action Plans (HAPs) aimed at mitigating the worst impacts of extreme heat across the country. As a recent report by the Center for Policy Research (CPR) notes, there are now more than 37 HAPs developed for different cities, regions, and states across the country (Pillai and Dalal, 2023). Collectively, the report highlights, HAPs identify a range of strategies and interventions across various domains (infrastructure, technology, institutional capacity-building, behavioral changes etc.) that will help in better addressing the problem of increasing temperatures in the country. There are also other noteworthy efforts, such as Telangana’s recently released ‘Cool Roof Policy 2023-28’, which sets ambitious targets to implement ‘cool roofs’ in government, educational, commercial, residential, and non-residential buildings throughout the state of Telangana as a way to reduce heat absorbed by individual buildings and diminish Urban Heat Island (UHI) effects overall.

Of particular interest to HAPs is the issue of mitigating the adverse health outcomes and other impacts that extreme heat might have on social groups that are especially vulnerable, including children and the elderly, pregnant women, slum dwellers, outdoors workers, and those carrying out heavy manual labor. But, as the CPR report notes, HAPs remain limited in being able to identify (and therefore, target) vulnerable groups beyond generalized categories.

In this brief essay, we have highlighted how one such vulnerable group, namely those dwelling in informal urban settlements, is impacted by and adapts to harsh temperatures. Our research foregrounds the importance of resources such as water and shade and the gendered social relations that are crucial to securing thermal comfort in such contexts. However, we find that these vital socio-material interdependencies through which vulnerable groups are already adapting to changing climates are all but invisible from official documents of thermal governance. In the absence of actual empirical engagement, HAPs seem to fall back on generic assumptions about the sources of vulnerability for particular social groups and ways in which these therefore can be mitigated. Particular construction materials, water storage techniques, and economic activities as sources of vulnerability and resilience find no mention in HAPs. And yet, in infrastructurally ambiguous spaces, those—more than cool roofs and cooling centers—are the socio-material bases of securing some degree of thermal comfort. From the perspective of vulnerable groups, then, there continue to be significant disjunctures in the governance of heat. A discursive reframing away from disaster management to risk distribution, vulnerability mapping and entitlements to resources such as water, shade, better construction material, rest, and shelter from exposure to heat will be an important next step toward bridging these disconnects.

Aalok Khandekar is Assistant Professor of Anthropology/ Sociology and Adjunct Professor of Climate Change at Indian Institute of Technology Hyderabad. His current research investigates climate and environmental governance in the urban global south.

Anant Maringanti is director of Hyderabad Urban Lab Foundation and member of the international team studying the impact of heat on off-grid localities in cities of the global south.

Anushree Gupta is a PhD scholar at the Department of Liberal Arts (IIT Hyderabad) interested in the intersections between technologies, communities, and gendered forms of work. Her doctoral research looks at the modes of organization, affects, and infrastructures that underpinned the responses to COVID-19 in Hyderabad.

Tanaya Bhowal is a social researcher studying heatwave exposure in off-grid settlements of cities in the global south as part of the ‘Cool Infrastructures’ project.

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