Heat Waves Impact on Informal Workers and India's Heat Action Plans

  • 31 May 2024

Why is it in the News?

Crowded urban areas exacerbate the heat island effect, heightening risks for informal workers due to their unstable employment, lack of safety nets, and existing socio-economic vulnerabilities.


  • Nowadays, Northern India is experiencing an intense heat wave, with workers, particularly those involved in hard physical labour, being the most vulnerable.
  • In Delhi, temperatures have exceeded 50 degrees Celsius, posing severe and life-threatening conditions for labourers.
  • The recent death of a 40-year-old worker due to extreme heat has prompted the Lieutenant Governor's office to issue guidelines, underscoring the urgency and gravity of the situation for those working under the scorching sun.

What is a Heat Action Plan?

  • Heat Action Plan or HAP is a policy document prepared to effectively understand and respond to the harmful effects of heat waves.
  • HAPs are prepared by the government authorities at various levels and serve as a comprehensive guide, outlining measures to prepare for, respond to, recover from and learn from extreme heat events.
  • It is an advisory document that’s put forward by state and local governments that explains what needs to be done to prepare for a heat wave, what is to be done after a heat wave is declared, and puts forth a range of emergency responses and course corrective actions to learn from the heat wave experience so that the HAP can be refined.
  • The primary purpose of these plans is to protect vulnerable populations and direct essential resources, including healthcare, financial support, information, and infrastructure, to those most at risk during extreme heat conditions.
  • These plans are multi-sectoral in nature. They involve implementation from multiple government departments simultaneously before enduring heat waves and the main idea behind them is to make sure that during extreme temperatures, there is no loss of life.
  • HAPs play a crucial role in raising awareness and providing guidance for individuals and communities to proactively safeguard their well-being against heat waves through a balanced mix of short and long-term actions.

What are the Flaws in Existing Heat Action Policies?

  • Inadequate Coverage and Implementation: Despite NDMA mandates, many regions lack comprehensive HAPs.
    • Where HAPs do exist, implementation is often inconsistent, leading to uneven protection for vulnerable populations, especially in urban areas.
  • Insufficient Focus on Informal Workers: HAPs largely overlook the specific needs of informal workers, who make up a significant portion of the urban workforce.
    • This group includes construction labourers, street vendors, domestic workers, and home-based workers, all facing unique challenges during heat waves.
    • When workers are mentioned, it's usually in a generic "outdoor workers" category, resulting in insufficient and inappropriate interventions.
  • Short-Term, Reactive Approach: Many HAPs focus on immediate relief rather than long-term solutions, evidenced by temporary measures like water provision and altered work hours.
    • While these provide immediate relief, they do not address the underlying vulnerabilities that exacerbate the impact of heat waves on workers.
    • There is a need for HAPs to integrate with broader urban planning and climate action plans for sustainable, resilient solutions.
  • Rural Bias in Planning: HAPs often have a rural bias, neglecting the unique challenges of urban environments.
    • Urban areas experience the "heat island effect," where dense infrastructure and reduced vegetation lead to higher temperatures.
    • Informal urban settlements, where many workers live, are particularly vulnerable due to poor housing conditions and limited access to basic services.
  • Lack of Integration with Urban Planning: HAPs often operate in isolation from other urban planning and development initiatives.
    • There is little coordination between HAPs and urban design, housing policies, or infrastructure development.
    • This lack of integration means missed opportunities to create more heat-resilient urban environments.
    • Urban greening, improved housing designs, and better urban mobility can significantly reduce heat exposure and improve life quality for informal workers, but these measures are rarely considered in HAPs.
  • Absence of Worker Participation: A critical gap is the lack of participation from worker communities in developing and implementing HAPs.
    • Informal workers, who are most affected by heat waves, often have valuable insights into their working conditions and specific challenges.
    • Excluding them from the planning process results in measures that may not be practical or effective.

Recommended Policies to Mitigate the Impact of Heat Waves:

  • Reconceptualizing Heat Waves: Heat waves should be treated as prolonged disasters rather than isolated events, integrating Heat Action Plans (HAPs) with long-term urban planning and climate action strategies.
    • The NDMA should collaborate with urban stakeholders such as the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) and the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE).
  • Worker Participation: It's essential to include worker communities in the preparation of action plans.
    • The government should involve worker welfare boards and committees, like the Town Vending Committees (TVC) for street vendors, in drafting and implementing HAPs.
    • Engaging these groups can lead to more tailored and effective interventions.
  • Gender-Specific Needs: The impact of heat waves is not gender-neutral. Women workers, who constitute a significant part of the informal workforce, face unique challenges often overlooked in HAPs.
    • These include increased care responsibilities, reproductive health risks, and greater exposure to heat in domestic and care work settings.
    • HAPs should incorporate gender-specific measures to address these challenges, ensuring equitable and inclusive interventions.
  • Economic and Health Protection: Heat waves profoundly affect the economic and health conditions of informal workers, yet HAPs often lack comprehensive measures to mitigate these effects.
    • Informal workers frequently face income loss due to reduced working hours and increased healthcare expenses.
    • HAPs should include provisions for income protection, such as compensation for lost wages and access to affordable healthcare.
    • Strengthening social protection systems is also crucial to provide a safety net for workers during extreme heat events.
  • Rethinking Labor Laws: As labour laws and Labor Codes are reformed, they should integrate considerations of climate change and its impact on work.
    • This ensures that labour laws are responsive to new challenges posed by extreme heat and other climate-related events.
    • Extending legal protections to informal workers is necessary, ensuring they receive the same rights and benefits as formal workers, including safe working conditions, fair wages, and social security access.
  • Urban Reimagining: The government should redesign urban spaces to prioritize the needs of informal workers.
    • This includes ensuring access to water, shade, and rest areas in public and work spaces.
    • Additionally, investing in urban infrastructure to mitigate the impact of heat waves is essential.
    • This involves increasing green spaces, improving housing conditions in informal settlements, and enhancing public transportation.


The recent severe heat wave in northern India highlights the pressing need for comprehensive and inclusive measures to safeguard the most vulnerable workers. By integrating long-term planning, inclusive policies, and active worker participation, India can effectively protect its informal workforce from the devastating impacts of extreme heat. Prioritizing the design of cities to meet the needs of workers is essential for fostering a more resilient and equitable urban environment.