Extreme heatwaves caused by climate change have battered India for weeks, affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. While several of India’s states have implemented heat action plans to mitigate the effects of high temperatures, much of the action to help people on the ground is coming from civil society. Civil society is also playing a vital advocacy role, urging India’s government to take stronger action against climate change. As the climate continues to change, more extreme weather is inevitable. Governments need to partner with civil society to both cut emissions and prepare to deal with climate change’s impacts.

Since March 2022, India has experienced record-shattering temperatures that have affected the lives and livelihoods of millions. Civil society is responding to bring some relief and to press for action on the climate crisis that becomes more urgent by the day.

In April, the average maximum temperature for northwest and central India soared to the highest ever since records began 122 years ago, with temperatures as high as 45°C in some areas. According to the India Meteorological Department, conditions are expected to persist during May, and may even worsen.

India has always had heatwaves, but this year has been unusual both because of the intensity of the weather and its timing. Typically, temperatures plateau at this time of year during the build up to the monsoon season, but this time they have kept rising, cutting the spring season short weeks before the official start of summer.

Extreme weather like this is on the rise not only in India but across the globe, and the science connecting it to climate change just keeps getting stronger. As the planet heats, more extreme weather of all kinds is expected, with once incredibly rare events coming around with increasing frequency.

In 2020, the Indian government produced a report noting a rise in average temperature of 0.7°C between 1901 and 2018 and predicting a further increase by roughly 4.4°C as a result of climate change. It estimated an increase in the frequency of heatwaves, projecting such incidents to be three to four times higher by the end of the 21st century as compared to the 1976-2005 baseline period. It also predicted these events would last longer.

For people across India, this outlook, the consequence of climate change, is grim – and potentially deadly.

The heatwave’s harsh impacts

As temperatures rise, so does the risk of heat-related illness such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke and hyperthermia. According to the World Health Organization, extreme temperatures can worsen chronic conditions, including heart and respiratory diseases, which can lead to premature death. In India, an estimated 25 people have already died due to the current heatwave.

High daytime temperatures are only one part of the problem. Cities and other built-up environments can act as urban heat islands, where thermal energy remains trapped in cement and concrete during the night, keeping the local environment excessively warm and preventing the body cooling down, increasing heat stress and negative health effects.

As with all environmental problems, not everyone is affected equally. The impacts pattern onto and exacerbate existing inequalities. Extreme heat disproportionately affects poor people, who have fewer options to stay inside and no access to air conditioning, and older people, who are likelier to have health conditions made worse by extreme heat. People who earn a daily wage also bear severe consequences due to their lack of resources and prolonged exposure to harsh work conditions worsened by the heat.

Children are affected too. In some Indian states, schools have closed because children showed signs of illness, while in other states governments have planned an earlier summer holiday in response to parents’ demands, causing children to miss out on education.

Another problem comes in the form of potential water and electricity shortages. Energy and water are in higher demand as people do what they can to stay cool, but increased use has intensified the strain on already fragile infrastructure, threatening to further disrupt lives and livelihoods.

Farmers have been told to use water sparingly, but the agricultural sector has already been hard hit. The wheat harvest is expected to be lower than usual and the Indian government is contemplating limiting wheat exports, potentially affecting countries that import the crop at a time when the price of wheat is already high due to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Fish sellers, many of whom are women, have reported lower than average catches, due to warmer waters, and fewer customers since prices have increased. Livestock and wild animals are also threatened by high temperatures, posing a threat not just to critical food supplies but to ecosystems. Unsurprisingly, the number of fire-related incidents has increased, affecting areas such as forests and jungles, and some industrial buildings.

Civil society at the forefront of response

Every emergency triggers civil society action, and this has been no exception. Just as it has been at the forefront of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters over the years, Indian civil society is doing its best to help people cope with the heatwave. Many responses have come at the community level. Individually, they may be small, but collectively they represent an invaluable effort to help people, particularly in hard-hit excluded groups, cope with the crisis.

International and local civil society such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Integrated Research and Action for Development are raising public awareness and providing lifesaving communications.

Simple actions can be effective. In the state of Gujarat, the Mahaila Housing Trust, one of many civil society organisations (CSOs) responding, has stepped up its work to help poor urban women keep their homes cool with inexpensive techniques such as bamboo roofs and solar-reflective white paint. In Chaibasa, Jharkhand state, a team from Giants Group is handing out umbrellas to older people and traffic officers to help protect them from the sun’s glare.

Resilience can be the result of years of preparatory work. The CSO Coro India launched an initiative to conserve and store water in Maan, Maharashtra state, in 2017. Working with 24 local CSOs and 90 local women, and with the help of the state government, it has made six villages drought-free, ensuring a consistent supply of water during the heatwave.

Among the many initiatives seeking to mitigate climate change and strengthen local resilience is Technology Informatics Design Endeavour, focused on energy conservation. So far, its efforts have resulted in an annual saving of around 30,000 tonnes of firewood and 45,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Another CSO, Humana People to People India, is establishing solar mini-grids and charging stations in villages that would otherwise have no access to renewable energy.

Alongside grassroots work, civil society groups continue to engage in advocacy, urging the government to act more quickly on the climate crisis. One such group, Climate Trends, promotes conversations about climate change among the public and policy makers to encourage further action. But it is young people who view climate change as a threat to their future who have become India’s most audible voices for climate action.

India’s climate policy and heatwave strategy

Until 2015, responsibility for heatwave response rested primarily with India’s state-level governments, but in 2016, the National Disaster Management Authority (NMDA) produced the country’s first national guidelines for heatwaves, revised in 2017 and 2019. The guidelines focus on identifying early warning signs to help people avoid heat-related illness and death.

There are also district-specific and region-specific strategies. The city of Ahmedabad was the first to produce a heat action plan, estimated to have saved 1,190 lives since its implementation in 2013. Its success led to the expansion of its approach to 23 heatwave-prone states. Several have developed or committed to developing action plans, covering over 130 cities and districts. The current crisis has prompted the national government to urge those that don’t have such plans to develop them.

Tangible actions from some state governments have included the restriction of transport services during the hottest hours, the provision of safe drinking water and the formation of committees to investigate heatstroke death. National-level action through the NDMA has included the rescheduling of working hours for outdoor workers, the establishment of drinking water kiosks and increases in the number of health facilities.

Civil society cooperation has been vital in many of these responses. In Sri Sathya Sai district, Andhra Pradesh state, for example, CSOs have worked with the local administration to ensure that drinking water supplies are provided in public places.

Some progress has also recently been made in addressing the bigger question of climate change. In 2020, Odisha state became the first to introduce a climate change budget to support mitigation and adaptation actions. That same year, Mumbai became the sixth Indian city to join the C40 cities initiative, which connects the world’s largest cities to develop and implement a climate action plan compatible with the Paris Agreement. Mumbai has since produced India’s first net-zero action plan.

At the national level, the Indian government surprised delegates at the 2021 COP26 climate change summit by launching its first-ever net-zero plan, promising to provide half of its electricity from renewables by 2030, on the basis of a massive expansion of solar power. While its plan reflected an increase in ambitions, its commitment to achieve net-zero status by 2070 falls short of responding to a reality where, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2025 to give the world any chance of limiting global temperature rise to a maximum of 1.5°C.

Civil society partnerships essential

Despite its COP26 commitment, India has resisted setting overall reduction targets because it believes industrialised nations should bear the greater share of the burden, since they have historically contributed the most towards global warming and developed their economies as a result. This means global north states must support global south transition; however, climate financing remains below the target set at COP15 in 2009. More support from global north states is needed to help India cut emissions.

At the same time, since more heatwaves will come, India must focus on developing practical measures to limit their impacts. There is simultaneously a need to reduce risk, enhance community resilience and ensure effective response and recovery capabilities.

According to officials, existing national guidelines are not designed to be enforced by central government but instead by individual states through their own heat action plans. But analysis of these plans has found them to be inadequate. Governments at national and state levels must work to improve the scope of their policies and implement them more effectively to deal with more frequent and prolonged heatwaves.

As a leading source of immediate responses and longer-term solutions, and the strongest advocate for climate action, civil society is the natural partner for these efforts.


  • The government of India should work in partnership with civil society to develop heatwave response strategies that focus on vulnerable communities at greatest risk.
  • Indian and international civil society should work together to pressure the government of India to commit to greater emissions cuts, faster.
  • Global north states must provide adequate financing to enable India’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Cover photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images