Originally posted: 18 June 2015.  ||  Updated: 29 April 2022

Yet again, India has a heat wave and it will be the people living at the margins who will suffer the most.  What does ‘living at the margins’ mean? How does it affect people’s experience of place? Read this essay to get some idea of why place matters.

Below is the original essay.

Links have been updated and today’s information has been added: satellite map of temperatures, links to articles online, and embedded videos on the topic.

Greetings, young geographers! Welcome to the new school year. I hope you have all had a good vacation and that you are ready to tackle the work that lies ahead.

I had hoped to start my column this year on a joyous note, but events have arranged themselves otherwise.

From Andhra Pradesh to the northern plains, there is an intense heat wave that has claimed over 2,200 lives at the time of writing this.

Normally, the intense heat of the plains is not quite so deadly and is vital for the southwest monsoon system to deliver the copious rainfall that we need in the subcontinent. This year’s heat wave is being linked in very complex ways to variations in the Pacific typhoon season and, in turn, to the developing El Niño phenomenon. These are also linked to the delay in the arrival of the monsoon on the Kerala coast. That arrival was forecast for 1 June, but at the time of writing this, the front of the monsoon system is still a little distance away.

There are scientists who link these phenomena to the global climate change that is underway thanks to human activities. You have probably already studied about the kinds of activities that are leading to the climate change that is now well documented.

What your textbooks don’t discuss is the connection between the geographical connections among weather, climate, and socio-economic conditions.

People’s vulnerability is almost always visible in their geographies. The word “margin” means “edge.” That indicates both location and quality. Look around you, and you will find that people who are socio-economically marginal are also geographically marginal. For example, the poorest agriculturists are the ones occupying the worst, least-productive lands that ought not to be farmed in the first place. The poorest are the ones most removed from the support services that they need, and have a right to. I seem to indicate here that they live far away from the “good” areas. That is only part of the picture.

Marginal life occurs even in the middle of prosperity – starkly visible in our cities. The current heat wave provides us an example of marginal geographies and their deadly consequences for the vulnerable.

The most vulnerable to the heat wave are those who are homeless, those who have to do manual labor outdoors for their livelihood; these occupy the lowest levels of the socio-economic structure in society. This is reflected in their geographies – they work outside and live in places where relief from the heat is slight (if at all). Access to clean water is far from universal or assured, many of them are too poor even to afford footwear, and if they don’t work for a day, that day’s sustenance is lost.

Under these circumstances, they have no choice but to try their best to navigate the geographies of their labor even in the heat while not having much of a chance of escaping the heat. Chronic (going on for a long time; from the Greek ‘chronos’, meaning ‘time’) under-nutrition is one of the results of poverty. This suppresses the immune system and the general health, making people even more vulnerable to environmental stresses.

Urban areas are highly built-up – lots of paved surfaces with cement, asphalt and so on, resulting in urban heat islands. Urban heat islands are areas of high heat resulting from the reflection of the heat from built surfaces and the reduction of green cover (trees). This is part of the economic growth of our cities. The most prosperous cities are the ones with the most built-up areas and thus have the larger, more intense heat islands. These same cities also attract a lot of people for manual labor. Most of these do not live in the security and shelter of the fabulous buildings. They live in areas of the city that are vulnerable to flooding, overcrowding (i.e., high population density), poor sanitation and water supply, and so on.

Theirs is a marginal existence amid the urban plenty – geographically marginal and socio-economically marginal. So, when the heat wave arrives, the urban heat island aggravates an already difficult situation. Urban or rural, the poorest are the most vulnerable.

Their vulnerabilities are seen in their geographies.

Forecast on 29 April 2022:


2022-04-29 India heat wave prediction. The forecast for Friday afternoon shows much of India and Pakistan flirting with temperatures of 114 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. (Tropical Tidbits). — Source: Washington Post. https://tinyurl.com/yyv5xnmc [Accessed on 29 April 2022] Click on the image to see the original size

Things you can do:

  1. Whenever someone asks you for water to drink or just to throw on their faces, do not refuse them. As best as you can, help them by providing clean water. This is your geographical learning in action!
  2. Check out the India Meteorological Department’s website to track the latest position of the monsoon system.  As of today, 29 April 2022, this map has not yet been updated for 2022. So, bookmark the link and check back on the site.
  3. Based on that map, approximately when is the monsoon system likely to reach your town?
  4. When it arrives, try to keep your books in some dry place. Then go and stand in the rain in a safe place. Let it wash over you. When you are done, dry off, drink some warm tea or coffee or some such, and reflect on how soothing it was. No, you don’t catch colds because of playing in the rain. See this.
  5. Where you live, observe the movement of the clouds. Which direction do they seem to come predominantly? Why might this be?
  6. Get a sense of the marginal geographies of your town. Observe the various marginalized groups: Who are they? Where do they live? How do they interact with the town (e.g.: vending, casual labor, construction work, domestic work, begging, etc.)?
  7. Read additional information about the Indian heat-wave of 2015 here, about the 2022 heat-wave here (includes an animated GIF showing temperature patterns), and here.
  8. Watch these short videos below on the 2022 heat wave.




Share your thoughts and responses with us in the comment box below.

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald, Student Edition, on 18 June 2015.

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