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How Extreme Heat Will Impact India’s Election

Since 1996, India’s general elections—which occur every five years in sequential phases by regions carefully staggered by the Election Commission of India—have been held between April and May. But as this year’s election season fast approaches, electoral officials across the country are grappling with the challenge of safeguarding against extreme heat as voters head to the polls later this month.

The preparations come after India’s Meteorological Department, or the IMD, last week forecasted that the majority of the country will experience harsh and arid conditions from April to June, with a high probability of “above normal” heat waves lasting 10 to 20 days, rather than the usual span of four to eight days. 

While heat waves are generally common during India’s warmest months, rising global temperatures due to climate change have made them more frequent and intense even compared to five years ago, when India last held an election. In the last century, India’s average annual temperature has increased at a rate of 1.12°F, according to data from the World Bank. 12 of the warmest years in India have occurred since 2006, with 2016 experiencing the highest temperatures to date.

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Environmental experts are debating whether events such as political rallies and public events should be allowed to take place. They argue that Indian authorities need to proactively take measures so that politicians, campaigners, and voters can avoid the risk of heat exposure while also exercising their democratic rights. 

“On the one hand, you have huge numbers of people out in public rallies, engaging in what is a fundamental political right as part of the democratic process,” says Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a Fellow at the New Delhi-based organization Sustainable Futures Collaborative. “At the same time, it’s a very hot summer and they’re going to be some places where the heat is hazardous.”

Which parts of India will see soaring temperatures?

IMD data has indicated that states voting in the first and second phase of the election, with voting days on April 19 and April 26, will be affected by temperatures as high as 104°F. That means states in north, western, and central India—including Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Odisha, and Madhya Pradesh—are likely to experience two to eight days of heat waves. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for example, temperatures are already soaring at 104°F.

“If you take lessons from the last couple of years, this is a pan-India phenomenon that strikes different parts of the country and affects them differently,” says Pillai.

While the rising heat is usually concentrated across plain and coastal regions which are more vulnerable to its impact, experts note that hilly states in the south aren’t immune to higher temperatures, either. In the hilly, tribal state of Odisha, for example, the state’s chief electoral officer Nikunja Bihari Dhal noted that “ensuring minimal inconvenience for voters and ensuring the well-being of polling parties poses a significant challenge.”

What kind of preventative measures will the authorities take?

In nearly every state, political parties will likely start campaigning through mass public rallies and functions even before voting gets underway. For this reason, Ronita Bardhan, an associate professor at Cambridge University, says that “making extreme weather risks transparent to the public is as essential as the importance of voting.” 

That means authorities need to take preventative and adaptive measures to communicate the timings of rallies and high temperatures to the public through awareness-raising campaigns, the media, and other publicly available channels. “You have to make sure people have that kind of information at hand, which requires a proactive approach from rally organizers and government officials at different levels in all of these different states,” Pillai says. 

Last week, the Indian Health Ministry met with the National Disaster Management Authority to assess how prepared the country was to tackle heatwaves. Both bodies issued advisories with a general list of “do’s” and “don’ts” to prevent serious ailments or death from heatstroke,  including avoiding the sun between noon and 3 p.m., wearing cotton clothes, and ensuring constant rehydration. They also plan to create a central database on heat waves, including collecting data on cases and deaths from heatstroke in each state. 

The Election Commission has also instructed electoral officers in each state to generate awareness around the issue of extreme weather conditions and to take preventative measures to help voters endure the scorching heat as they queue to cast their ballots, with different states issuing their own individual guidelines.

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The experts add that having the right infrastructure is important. “That means having cooling centers and shade provision, and going the extra mile to make sure those arrangements are as thermally comfortable as possible,” says Pillai, in addition to making portable water accessible and distributing O.R.S. hydration to voters in booths. 

Taken more broadly, however, these efforts are part of a larger conversation about heat planning in India—an approach that Pillai stresses should be long-term and sustainable, so that come election time, “it doesn’t take away the possibility of political life and prevents a democracy.”

Will the heat ultimately affect voter turnout?

Despite the hotter temperatures, data from past elections shows heat doesn’t necessarily keep voters away. In fact, the national average voter turnout has consistently risen over the years, from just 45.7% in 1957 to a record-high 67.4% in 2019. 

A study from economists at the University of Kent on climate change and political participation in India, which looked at Assembly elections between 2008 and 2017, further found that while higher temperatures in the year leading up to state elections generally saw a decline in the number of candidates, there was an increase in voter turnout. 

The experts hypothesize that climate effects on farming and agriculture may be responsible for the higher turnout. “High-temperature shocks reduce agricultural output, which drives rural citizens to the polls and it changes how they vote—they make agricultural issues more salient and lead them to elect candidates with an agricultural background,” associate professor Amrit Amirapu, one of the co-authors, told The Indian Express

And the sustained turnout makes preventative measures all the more crucial.

“The best thing to do is [to] have very solidly built guardrails that protect people’s health as they engage in the democratic process,” Pillai says.  

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