top of page

Less income, more illness:
Delhi’s poorest workers
struggle in extreme heat

Woman sitting selling dry fruits in the heat

By Aradhna Wal


As temperatures hit 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit) on a recent day in New Delhi, Jyoti Ubreja and her two nieces found themselves in an argument with a customer at their dried fruit and nut stand in a historic New Delhi street bazaar.


The buyer wanted cashews, but he accused the women of cheating him on price, as all four of them, sweating profusely, huddled under an umbrella providing a bare minimum of protection from a blazing sun and waves of heat radiating from the baked concrete pavement. 


Offended, Unbreja called the customer mad and he stalked off - another sale lost on yet another scorching day when few people had ventured out to shop.


“Everyone is angrier in this heat - and so are we,” the 36-year-old vendor admitted. But the lower sales were hurting the trio, who said that amid New Delhi’s record-breaking heat this summer they now earn barely more than their costs of commuting the 10 miles to the stand each day.


Increasingly extreme heat around the world, driven by continuing use of oil, gas and coal, is making life brutally harder especially for the poorest workers, including many low-paid women in places like New Delhi, which in late May saw temperatures soar to near 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and which has since struggled with lengthy heatwaves.


Northwest India’s unusually drawn-out heat this year, with little relief at night, has left many people exhausted, irritated and ill. Government officials have warned residents to shelter indoors during the worst heat - but many women labouring in New Delhi’s informal economy say they simply can’t afford to stay home.


As they continue working, the women report more heat-related rashes and infections - and extreme heat is driving more miscarriages and other pregnancy complications, doctors say. But even as women need more money to seek treatment for their worsening health, they are earning less as soaring temperatures cut their ability to work during the day or drive away their customers.


In recent hot weeks, Poonam Yadav has seen her earnings as a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman fall by half, from about 800 rupees ($9.60) a day to 400 rupees ($4.80).

“People don’t want to open their doors in the heat. They slam them shut on me”

Poonam Yadav, New Delhi door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman

“People don’t want to open their doors in the heat. They slam them shut on me,” said the 29-year-old, who works in the city’s northeast Yamuna Vihar neighbourhood. “They get very angry at me for disturbing them, but I have no choice but to knock.”


Her mother-in-law Savita Yadav, who works as a domestic helper, said the relentless heat made it hard to summon the energy to go to work.


“There are days when I can’t bear to go outside. I just want to sleep,” the 53-year-old said. But she noted that she - like many other women - had no choice and could not afford to lose a day’s wages by taking off work.


Women working in garment factories, and paid by the piece, are also struggling. In Burari, an urban village on the outskirts of New Delhi, 54-year-old Sumati Devi said she only manages to finish 30 pieces a day during extremely hot weather, instead of her usual 60, halving her income to 100 rupees ($1.20) a day.

rising health risks

Nearly 90 percent of India’s workforce labors in the informal sector, and such workers are at heightened risk from heat exposure, with research published in June in the journal Nature suggesting women are particularly vulnerable to heat, and likely dying more frequently because of it.


Dr. Vidhya Venugopal, a public health specialist at the Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research in Chennai, studies heat impacts on workers and said women face particular physical and social stresses during extreme heat.


Her research on women in the informal economy in Chennai found that women’s physical makeup, including their hormone levels and menstrual cycle, can make their bodies hotter, putting them at higher risk during extreme heat.


“Women are at risk of spontaneous abortions, pregnancy complications, urogenital issues such as UTIs (urinary tract infections), rashes and so on,” said Venugopal, who is country director at the institute’s Faculty of Public Health. Fevers, sunburn, dehydration and fatigue also are problems, she said.


Ubreja, the dried fruit vendor in New Delhi, said she had just finished a course of antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, and her niece Roshni was taking medication to treat a fever and sore throat.


“The doctor told us it could be because of heat,” said Unbreja, who also suffers from thyroid disease and diabetes. “He warned me that I could have a heart attack because of this heat,” she added.


Because most women working in informal jobs do not have reliable access to toilets, many limit their water intake, even during hot weather, which can hugely raise their health risks, health officials say.


Ubreja said she uses her market’s public bathrooms, which aren’t always clean - but Poonam Yadav, the cosmetics saleswoman, said she doesn’t dare ask customers to use their personal toilets as she’s learned it can leave women unsafe.


Her mother-in-law, Savita, said she doesn’t use the toilet at the house where she cooks as her employers, who belong to a different caste, only allow her access to a third floor facility she has to clean herself. 


New Delhi’s recently released Heat Action Plan (HAP), a policy guide that suggests ways to reduce heat risks, identifies women - particularly pregnant women - as especially vulnerable, and advises them to take breaks during work hours. But many women say the ability to take breaks is not in their control.


Abhiyant Tiwari, who leads on climate resilience and health issues at NRDC India, an environmental think-tank, said no agency regulates breaks for informal economy workers, and the state and national disaster management authorities can only advise other government departments.


More work to understand the specific risks different occupations face during extreme heat is needed, urged Avinash Chanchal, a Greenpeace campaigner, who said specific policy recommendations would then be needed to protect those workers.


“Women working different jobs – in factories, as vendors, as domestic help – are exposed to heat differently,” he said. 

Women inside classroom sweating

longer heat exposure for women

Venugopal, the heat researcher, said women face particular heat-related risks, in part because both before and after their working hours they are usually cooking for their families, often in small and poorly ventilated kitchens.


Most women her team surveyed reported not having the energy or money to make nutritious food for their families during heat extremes. Most also lacked access to refrigeration, Venugopal said.


Sumanti Devi, the garment worker, and her 22-year-old daughter Kavita, don’t buy vegetables in hot weather, as they perish too quickly without refrigeration - and purchasing things like fresh fruit or dairy products is beyond their budget, they said.


Savita Yadav, the domestic worker, said cooking in her tiny home kitchen during extreme heat was nearly unbearable.


“When I turn on the stove, the heat and smoke hit me in the face,” she said, forcing her to keep stepping outside while trying to cook. Her apartment also is hit by blasts of hot exhaust from air conditioners belonging to her neighbours.


“I can’t afford an AC,” she said. “Maybe if everyone turned off their AC there wouldn’t be so much heat.”


The women said they have noticed their children falling ill during extreme heat, often running high fevers and having trouble studying. 


In early June, New Delhi’s government ordered state-run childcare facilities - known as Anganwadi centers - to shut their doors through the end of the month because of heat risks. Asha Devi, 56, who works at one of the centers in south Delhi, said she had never seen it shuttered before in 35 years of employment there.


Because children at the center normally are provided meals, staff were now going door-to-door in the heat to try to ensure the children were fed.


“We now deliver government food packets to all the houses in our area, instead of the children coming to us,” Devi said.


She has managed to keep temperatures in her two-room center bearable by using her own earnings to buy a low-cost cooler, which blows air over water-saturated pads. “I can afford this, but many people can’t,” she admitted.


With little access to affordable cooling, many women in the informal economy battle the heat with what they have. Ubreja’s nieces carry oral rehydration salts every day, and have split the cost of a large commercial umbrella to shelter their fruit and nut stand. Other women opt for cotton clothing or scarves to try to cool and protect their skin.


But they are aware their efforts may not be enough to deal with increasingly deadly heat driven by climate change.


“When we sit on the pavement and cars pass by, I can’t tell you what the heat feels like when it hits the body,” said Roshni, one of Ubreja’s nieces. 


“I am anxious all the time in this heat,” added Ubreja herself. “I wish I didn’t have to come out.”

bottom of page