India will go to vote amid sweltering heat; experts call for public awareness to mitigate impacts

  • This year’s general election coincides with a period of unusually high heat, spurring warnings from government departments to protect against heatstroke.
  • The general elections have consistently taken place during the summer months since the early 2000s, when surface temperatures also started rising.
  • Improving public awareness and coordination will be the litmus test for how well heat is managed through the election season, say experts.

India is gearing up for its six-week general election, scheduled to begin later in April. But it must also brace for an especially hot summer, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) has said. The coincidence of the heatwave season with the general election is an opportunity to rethink public preparedness in the face of escalating heat, experts say, as climate impacts are set to worsen over the subcontinent.

The general elections have consistently taken place during the summer months since the early 2000s. Anomalous land surface temperatures also started to rise around the turn of the century, and have risen so high as to make the past decade the warmest on record, the IMD’s data shows. This year, the IMD projects more frequent heat wave days will occur between April and June than usual, with temperatures soaring to 44 degrees celsius over most parts in May.

Historically, extreme weather has been taken into account when scheduling elections if it is likely to impede the voting process itself. But the rising frequency and intensity of heatwaves could introduce a different set of risks that need better public messaging, especially when the impacts can be deadly, say experts. A large public gathering in Maharashtra last year, where Home Minister Amit Shah was a guest, resulted in the deaths of 13 people due to heat stroke.

Large crowds in rallies are vulnerable to heat stress. Photo by Akashk663/Wikimedia Commons.

“Elections during heatwaves are an eye-catching demonstration of what climate impacts can look like when they interfere with public life and democratic processes,” said Aditya Valiathan Pillai, a fellow at the Sustainable Futures Collaborative specialising in heat policy. “But the elections are a subset of everyday community life, and the larger question here is how can community life be planned and carried out when it gets hotter.”

There are already reports of strain due to heat among those participating in the election process. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has released a set of guidelines to help manage heat during the election season, but political parties organising large crowds to attend rallies also have a responsibility to bear. “It is the responsibility of the organisers of any public event to make sure that during the event, nobody suffers on account of harsh weather conditions, or on the account of unavailability of water, and so on. In public meetings, political parties and other organisers have to take that responsibility,” Ashok Lavasa, former election commissioner, told Mongabay-India. “ECI also takes steps to ensure that fans, drinking water, and shade is provided for those who come to the polling stations for voting.”

Extreme weather and elections

India’s first general elections took place between October 1951 and February 1952. Subsequent elections occurred mostly between October and March, and sporadically between April and June. The election cycle more definitively moved to the months of April, May, and June in 2004, when then prime minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee called for early elections and was met with defeat.

“Perhaps the elections would have more consistently occurred during the cooler months if there were no disruptions. But governments can fall, and governments are also entitled to call for early elections as provided for in our Constitution. So although there is a predictability about the five year term, it has been and can be disrupted due to these factors,” Lavasa said.

But that’s not to say the weather hasn’t had an impact on scheduling, said Lavasa. “When the first elections were held in 1951, the elections in some parts of Himachal Pradesh were conducted much ahead of the other parts of the country because of the weather. If Himachal voted when other parts of the country did, some areas of the state would have been snow bound,” he said, adding, “Snow and floods have been taken into consideration when scheduling elections. The practical aspects of mobility, such as will the roads be blocked, are kept in mind.”

This year’s election is taking place amid warnings from several government departments about the risk of heatstroke. A public health advisory from the Ministry of Health warned that impacts can set in even in the absence of heatwave alerts. The Election Commission of India (ECI) also released guidelines with do’s and don’ts to protect against heat-related illness, and the centre has directed states to draw up mitigation plans for large gatherings amid high temperatures.


A 2006 picture of people queuing up in the heat in West Bengal. Photo by Election Commission of India/Wikimedia.

According to Pillai, improving public awareness and coordination will be the litmus test for how well heat is managed through the election season. “You have to have a very effective, very targeted and cleverly messaged set of communications with possible voters,” he said, adding, “Since the elections are happening in phases, it’s possible to ramp up messaging over these weeks and focus on places that are going to be the hottest. It’s also important that this messaging is not limited to heatwave days or when alerts are issued. It has to be across a range of temperatures, including lower temperatures, because different people are vulnerable in different ways.”

The summer ahead

In its outlook for the hot season, the IMD said above-normal heatwave days are likely to occur across most part of the country. There are likely to be between 10 and 20 heatwave days from April to June, up from the usual four to eight days. Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and north Karnataka are among the states to be most adversely affected.

“It’s difficult to assign any particular reason, but this is an El Nino year, and these areas usually see a higher number of heatwave days during El Nino,” said IMD director general Mrutyunjay Mohapatra during a press conference.

Some states are advising political parties against holding rallies in the afternoon hours. “In the future, the ECI can perhaps issue a more robust code of conduct that takes these impacts into account, encouraging more digital campaigns or reducing the number of rallies in each constituency so people are less exposed,” said Ramesh Sharma, National Coordinator of Ekta Parishad, a peoples’ movement for land rights.

Read more: [Explainer] As heat waves increase, are India’s Heat Action Plans effective?


Banner image: Women queueing up to vote. Photo by Public.Resource.Org/Flickr.

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