Heatstroke Is India’s Latest Climate Calamity
South Asia is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and its deadly knock-on effects.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: An early and deadly heat wave in India underscores the climate threats facing the region, a Chinese national is accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, and an Indian mobster-politician is shot and killed in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
And a programming note—this newsletter will take a break next week. Starting with the May 3 edition, South Asia Brief will now land in your inbox on Wednesdays. As always, thanks for reading!
Deadly Heat Wave Strikes Early
Thirteen people died from heatstroke after attending a mass public gathering in Navi Mumbai, India, last Sunday. More than 1 million people reportedly showed up to the event, a state award ceremony. Local authorities said high temperatures, along with a lack of available drinking water, contributed to the fatalities. Between 50 and 60 people were hospitalized, CNN reported, and it is likely many more people were affected.
The tragic incident is a sobering reminder of India and the broader region’s vulnerability to climate change. After the country’s hottest February on record, April has brought a severe heat wave. This week, Indian officials issued heat warnings for several states, with temperatures reaching 109 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of the country. The intense heat is expected to persist in the coming months.
Last month, climate scientist Kieran Hunt explained why India’s heat waves will likely intensify: hot, dry air arriving from the Middle East and a lack of cloud cover, which generates more heat. Furthermore, the global weather pattern known as El Niño is set to return this year, bringing warmer sea surfaces in the equatorial Pacific—which could mean further reductions in cloud cover and rain in India.
The public health implications of soaring temperatures are stark, as last weekend’s event in Navi Mumbai shows. In India, most people lack access to air conditioning and other cooling devices, exacerbating the risks especially for older people. But heat waves have other detrimental, sometimes deadly knock-on effects in South Asia, which is now on the front lines of the climate crisis.
High temperatures increase demand for electricity from businesses and households that do have the luxury of air conditioning, especially in urban areas. Spikes in energy demand add strain on aging electrical grids, which can cause blackouts with further public health impacts. Heat waves early in the season can severely disrupt some agricultural production, lowering profit margins and leading to job losses. Extreme heat can also damage roads and railways, delivering additional economic blows.
Destructive storms can also result. Last May, Jacobabad, Pakistan, recorded temperatures of 124 degrees Fahrenheit. Barely three months later, the city—and one-third of the country—was submerged by catastrophic floods triggered by earlier-than-usual monsoon rains. The flooding ranks as one of Pakistan’s worst-ever natural disasters, and millions of people remain displaced.
While responses to climate change vary around South Asia, India deserves ample credit. New Delhi has followed its ambitious pledge to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2070 by accelerating a scale-up of its renewable energy sector. Last year, it installed a record amount of solar power. In January, India released a new national green hydrogen strategy. And this month, the government announced that it would invite bids to set up 50 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity annually over the next five fiscal years.
Nonetheless, despite low carbon emissions per capita, India’s emissions growth rate is rapidly increasing—in large part because of its heavy reliance on coal, which still serves 55 percent of the country’s energy needs. Coal India, the state-owned coal giant responsible for 80 percent of India’s coal output, said that in the last fiscal year, it exceeded its production target for the first time since 2006.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah was the guest of honor at the ill-fated public gathering last Sunday. He likely saw the high turnout as an important show of political strength, at one point praising the crowd for braving the heat. But the loss of 13 lives shows that climate change is a clear and present danger in South Asia—not something to play politics over.
What We’re Following
Blasphemy charges in Pakistan. On Tuesday, a Pakistani court jailed a Chinese national for two weeks, pending trial on blasphemy charges. The man, identified by police only as Tian, works on a dam project in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; he reportedly accused two Pakistani laborers of taking too long to pray during work hours. The Pakistani workers say he insulted the Prophet Mohammed; the man denies the allegation.
Police detained the Chinese worker and flew him to the city of Abbottabad, citing safety concerns. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws criminalize words or actions deemed to offend Islam. The laws have been the basis for false accusations, especially against religious minorities, but it’s unusual for foreigners to be accused of blasphemy. In 2021, a Sri Lankan factory manager was burned to death by a mob of employees in eastern Pakistan after allegations that he desecrated posters depicting the prophet.
The incident in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa poses a challenge for Pakistan’s relations with China, which is already concerned about the security of its citizens in the country. In recent years, terrorist attacks have targeted Chinese workers and investments. So far, Beijing’s public response has been subdued, but in private it is likely to press Islamabad to resolve the issue quickly and return the man to China.
Indian mobster-politician killed in Uttar Pradesh. Last Saturday, former lawmaker and convicted criminal Atiq Ahmed—along with his brother Ashraf—was shot and killed in the city of Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populist state. Ahmed, who stood accused of involvement in a February murder, was being escorted by police to a hospital for a medical checkup; his shooting was captured on live television.
Local media reported that the attackers posed as journalists to allow them to get close to Ahmed and his brother; they surrendered to police soon after. The extrajudicial killing raises several questions. The brothers were Muslim, and one of the attackers chanted a slogan popular with Hindu nationalists, suggesting the possibility of a sectarian motive. That the attackers carried out their assault at close range and in front of so many security also suggests a monumental failure on the part of the police.
Bangladesh-Bhutan transit agreement. Last month, Bangladesh finalized an agreement that will allow landlocked Bhutan to use three Bangladeshi ports, along with roads and railways, for imports and exports. Trade analysts in Bangladesh say the deal will be a boon for business in the country, as Bhutan will likely pay generous rates to goods transporters to use their vehicles.
It’s natural to see the deal through a geopolitical lens: It should reduce Bhutan’s reliance on India for transporting goods, which would indirectly benefit China—a competitor of India’s throughout the region. But at its core, the deal is about Bangladesh’s growing agency. Its recent economic successes have positioned it to become a source of assistance rather than just a recipient.
Under the Radar
The Karachi Zoo this week formed a nine-member expert committee to make recommendations for the care of a critically ill 17-year-old elephant named Noor Jehan. The animal, named after a famous Pakistani singer and actress, has been ill for months, and her condition worsened after a recent fall. She is no longer able to stand; a group of foreign veterinarians who recently visited the zoo worry that her life is at risk.
The saga of Noor Jehan has generated great sympathy among Pakistanis and sparked discussions about the neglect that many animals face at zoos in the country. In 2020, a male elephant named Kaavan at the Islamabad Zoo was transferred—with support from the singer Cher—to a new jungle enclosure in Cambodia after experiencing health problems. He is now reportedly thriving.
But Noor Jehan is too ill to be relocated. Some commentators have observed that her story is a metaphor for the sufferings of many Pakistanis. “Noor Jehan is us,” tweeted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an artist in Karachi and a grandson of the former Pakistani president of the same name. “The same institutions responsible for her deterioration have been responsible for the decay of our once proud city, province and people.”
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Management consultant Sujeev Shakya argues in the Kathmandu Post that Nepal’s energy sector has improved in recent years, developing more capacity to generate electricity and bring in revenue, but that it still needs more investment. “[S]ome unprecedented transformations have taken place … . But we have a long way to go,” he writes.
In the Times of India, designer Ritika Meena offers her thoughts on how Indian science museums should evolve in the future. “Creating experience by adding a seamless flow of storytelling and fostering the participation of people needs to be the new ideology for science museums,” she explains.
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Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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