In March-May 2022, India experienced the most severe heat waves in over a century. Climate change has made the occurrence of such heatwaves thirty times more likely. The prolonged and widespread heat waves, when temperatures rose up to 50 Degrees Celsius, severely affected millions of people, animals, and agriculture, especially the wheat harvest that received a hard blow due to the heat waves coinciding with the harvest season. The Indian Meteorological Department considers the onset of heat wave when the temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius in plains and above 30 degrees Celsius in hill stations and/or when the departure from normal temperature in a place is between 4.5 degrees Celsius to 6.4 degrees Celsius, and anything beyond this increase is considered severe heat wave. Yet, these numbers cannot adequately hold the visceral experiences of bodies enduring heat, and the social and political meanings that get inscribed on different bodies.

Climates and environments are infused with significations, and so are bodies that inhabit them. In this brief essay, I trace the relation between environmental heat and the body in India during three historical periods—during the colonial period when hierarchies of the climate (temperate versus hot) marked difference between European/colonizer and native/colonized bodies, during the post independent period in the twentieth-century when “technologies of comfort” like air-conditioners and refrigerators as signifiers of modernity related comfort with classed bodies, and in the present moment, through biopolitical and neoliberal measures like Heat Action Plans (HAPs) that usher a new regime of management of bodies and population. I make two brief arguments: I show that environmental heat, at different historical moments, has forged specific relations with bodies experiencing it. Second, through the example of HAPs undertaken by the central government, I trace the paradox of heat being everywhere and nowhere, ubiquitous yet invisible. I suggest that identifying this paradox is the first step in envisioning a plan to mitigate heat.

The recurrent heat waves in the past five years embroil India and other South Asian countries in a strange contradiction— unlike much of Europe where extreme heat is a recent phenomenon, everyday techniques to shelter oneself from the heat have permeated South Asian lives since the past millennium. The use of earthen pots that keep stored water cool in the heat, have been used in the subcontinent since 1000 B.C. Practices to shield the body from heat or to create a balance between internal, bodily heat and external environmental heat have been an intrinsic part of Ayurveda and Yunani for the past several centuries. Yet, despite having a long history of techniques to mitigate heat through architecture, medicine, and agriculture, in this moment of climate change, impacts of heat waves in India are one of the most adverse in the world. This brings home the point that environmental heat has been a ubiquitous experiential reality in South Asia, but it has been far from being a uniform one. Not only has heat been experienced differently by people based on their positions in social hierarchies, the rise of temperature has historically been a small part of narratives around heat. Heat and hot places like India have invoked imaginations simultaneously of abundance (of flora and fauna) and scarcity (of moral values), especially during the colonial period, and the relation of heat with bodies has been marked with assumptions of colonialism, gender, class, and caste.

Purchasing Blocks of Ice

Residents purchase blocks of ice as temperatures in the city become unbearable. Source: Karachi Urban Lab

Mughal architecture, an amalgamation of Persian and Indian styles, was not only the seat of grandeur and the sublime. Vaulted and doomed roofs, lattice screen, thick walls, arched ceilings prevented the absorption of summer’s vertical sun, keeping the inner surfaces cool. The sunshades along with verandahs formed a liminal space between the inside and the outside. Water channels and fountains that were based on principles of evaporative cooling carefully managed the microclimate of the place. From nineteenth-century onwards, medicine replaced architecture as the disciplinary site for discussions on heat. As Suman Seth writes in Difference and Disease, the question that perplexed travelers from Britain to places like India, West Africa and elsewhere was why they fell sick when they arrived, and why was the illness never so severe once they recovered.

By the nineteenth-century, medicine, could not be abstracted from the broader colonial order, where the body became the site of authority and control of colonial power as well as its repudiation by the colonized— a process that David Arnold terms as the “corporeality of colonialism”. The body—as a location of power and resistance or as a site where western and Indian (primarily Ayurveda and Yunani) medicine could lay their claims— was far from being a clear separation between that of the colonizer and the colonized. Especially in the context of epidemic diseases like cholera, smallpox, and plague, there were layers of meanings and even opposing readings of the body, as well dialectical and pluralistic relations between Western and Indian medicines instead of each being a closed entity or an absolute form of knowledge. With ideas of porosity of bodies that were affected by the immediate environments informing colonial medicine in the nineteenth century, the conceptual space of “the tropics” constructed places and people in India as different from temperate places like Europe.

In the postcolonial period, the need for bodies to find “comfort” through technologies like air conditioners were not only a means to alleviate environmental heat, but they were also markers of modernity. Discussions on technologies like refrigerators and air conditioners in households and industries emerged as areas where colonial hierarchies of people and places based on climate were reproduced through categories like class. “Comfort” is a word and a concept that is continuously used since the colonial period until the present moment, but instead of demarcating the tropical from the temperate, or the colonizer and the colonized, technologies of comfort have been an inevitable building block and a symbol of modern India.

“There is a general impression that air conditioning and refrigeration is a luxury that underdeveloped countries like India can well do without. This misconception is due perhaps to the fact that in the public mind, air conditioners and refrigeration are associated only with comfort cooling. This must also be the reason why in our planned economy it has been given such low priority. It is fully appreciated that air-conditioning and refrigeration is today a vital tool of modern industry and has played an equally vital and important part in food preservation. It will be no exaggeration to say that without the full use of air-conditioning and refrigeration, it will be impossible to achieve the objectives of Five-Year plans and raise the standard of living in the country.” (Role of Air Conditioning, The Hindu, 1st August 1962)

In the past decade, the quotidian experiences of sweltering summer days have been coupled with extreme heat conditions and recurrent heat waves. It is only recently that the central government has been actively involved with addressing heat conditions. Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) and National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) started working last year with 23 out of 28 states that are considered as existing and potential sites for extreme heat waves. The project drew heavily from the lessons from Ahmedabad city’s Heat Action Plan of 2013. In March 2022, NDMA organized virtual national workshop on “prevention, preparedness, mitigation, and management” of heat waves by bringing together researchers, policy makers, and representatives from national level ministries, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations to form an action plan for the country. It has also collaborated with two organizations— the Indian Institute of Public Health, Hyderabad (IIPHH) and Visveswaraya National Institute of Technology, Nagpur— to identify vulnerable population and envision components of model HAPs in specific areas like meteorological, epidemiological, public health, and urban/regional planning. Under this plan, different states approached the urgent crisis in different ways. As part of HAP, Gujarat created multi-level (district, state, village) action plans that included adopting cool-roof technologies, making a plan to restrict climate warming emissions, try to reduce heat related illnesses.

Andhra Pradesh— another state with highest number of people affected by heat every year— informed citizens to avoid being outdoors between 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., adjusted school timings, and took extra precaution to protect pregnant women. Several districts in the state made oral rehydration salts (ORS) available for people on the streets and built water coolers in public places. Other states like Bihar and Maharashtra used a range of technologies and practices including mobile phones to disseminate weather warnings, use terracotta vessels to store and provide water to people on the streets, sprinkle water on surfaces like cement roofs and railways platforms, and plant trees along roads. If studies in medicine and health during the colonial period was based on assumptions about European and Indian bodies, and the cooling technologies for the most part of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries emerged out of aspirational ideas that were hinged on notions of class and modernization, the HAPs are a biopolitical attempt where methods of calculation and measurement of heat are deployed to manage large populations.

The HAP in Gujarat in 2013 resulted in significant reduction of deaths during the hottest days in the state, but these rather recent measures invokes a paradox in the relation between heat, place, and bodies in India and South Asia broadly— on the one hand, like I discussed in this article, heat has been at the heart of South Asian imagination and practice, but on the other hand, the pervasiveness of heat has foreclosed research on emergent infra/structural —that have contributed towards adverse conditions in the past decades—like higher number of automobiles in urban areas or global climate change that inequitably impact countries like India— and engage in research and action beyond emergency situations. Despite having the long history of techniques and discourses on heat, in the face of climate change, India has been a country that has been the most adversely affected by heat in the world. And the most vulnerable bodies/ communities like laborers working outdoors and elderly people have been the most severely impacted. The heat wave that began in the spring last year and lasted for the next few months was unprecedented in its severity and expanse. The actual number of deaths seemingly go far beyond the official number of hundred.

During the heatwave in 2015, in the southern parts of the country, nearly 3000 people and thousands of animals died, while others experienced hyperthermia, stroke, dehydration. The overworked air conditioners and other infrastructures of comfort collapsed, and roads began to melt. This brings up interesting question: with historically embedded cultural experiences and expectations about the threshold of tolerating heat, what is the moment when heat becomes unbearable? How does quantifying extreme heat conditions through categories like “heat wave” relate to the embodied experiences of heat? This is true of most environmental conditions, but especially in case of heat where the experience of encountering it is mediated through humidity and air quality, it is difficult to identify and act when the threshold of endurance is tipped dangerously. The ubiquity and invisibility of heat, its experiential presence but its material absence make heat a difficult object of study. Further, the adverse effects of heat are deeply linked with labor conditions that leave thousands of people with few choices other than working outdoors and infrastructures in urban areas. Identifying environmental heat as a socially embedded, historically contingent process that extends beyond the brief moments of heat waves is perhaps the first step towards (re)mediating its relation with bodies in South Asia.

Ashawari Chaudhuri is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Her research is at intersections of the environment, health, and science.

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