India tries to adapt to extreme heat but is paying a heavy price

Typically, heat waves in India affect only part of the country, occur in the summer and only last for a week or so. But a string of early heat waves this spring has been longer and more widespread than any observed before. India experienced its hottest March on record. Northwest and central India followed with their hottest April.

Vigyan Shukla, a 45-year-old farmer on north India’s plains, has known heat all his life. But not heat like this.

When temperatures began to soar in Uttar Pradesh state several weeks ago, Shukla’s wheat crops began to shrivel and his cows provided less milk. When the mercury hit 117 degrees Fahrenheit late last month, a record high in Shukla’s town of Banda, it became punishing for humans, too: Seven of his 25 farmhands came down with diarrhoea, a symptom of heat stroke. Others refused to stay outside past 10 a.m.

After the heat eased briefly last week, a new wave began over the weekend that will last for several days. The highest temperatures will be felt on Wednesday and Thursday in northwest India in the states of Rajasthan and Punjab, but much of the country will endure temperatures over 104˚F (40˚C).

Raghvendra Tewari, a local official overseeing NREGA programs in Banda, set a target of about 6,000 workers digging canals and ditches. But only 2,000 showed up during the peak of the recent heat wave, he said, and organizers have stopped taking daily attendance. Instead of working 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., teams now start around dawn and disband by 11 a.m.

“The heat is never so bad that we’ve had to do this before,” Tewari said.

The extreme heat is straining not only farmers but also their crops, as high temperatures coincided with the final weeks of the planting season, when grains need cool weather to mature. Devinder Sharma, an agricultural policy expert, said a quarter of every acre of Indian wheat could be lost to the heat.

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