'My body and phones gave up': covering India's heatwave election

Men use a stole to cover from heat as they wait in a line outside a polling station to cast their votes during the sixth phase of India's general election, on a hot summer day in Bhubaneswar, India, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
first person

Men use a stole to cover from heat as they wait in a line outside a polling station to cast their votes during the sixth phase of India's general election, on a hot summer day in Bhubaneswar, India, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer

What’s the context?

For Context correspondent Bhasker Tripathi covering the election in heat-scorched India brought home the dangers of climate change

I was outside a polling station in northern India when my body and phones gave up, succumbing to the crushing heat that beat down on voters' heads during India's mammoth six-week election.

Sweating and weak, I stumbled to a small mud hut nearby where I found a group of election workers huddled together among sacks of grain, desperate for the meagre shelter offered by the thatched roof.

They wiped their sweating faces with their neck cloths as an old ceiling fan creaked to a halt because of a power cut.

All of the workers were unhappy with how little effort they said had gone into protecting voters and election staff from the record-breaking heat that reached 46 degrees Celsius (114.8 Fahrenheit) on that mid-May day in the village of Pathra.

"No one at the national level will probably ever assess it, but heat in this election has a played a major role in affecting voter turnout in seats where temperatures were high," said Raghuvansh Mani Dwivedi, a political worker in his 50s.

Housewife Vandana sits with other women in a village in Banda, India, May 15, 2024. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Bhasker Tripathi
Go DeeperRural India's economic distress poses post-election challenge
People wait in lines to cast their vote outside a polling station in the Purulia district, India, March 27, 2021. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
Go DeeperAs India's election kicks off, is extreme heat a threat to voters?
Gig workers wait in line to collect their delivery order outside a mall in Mumbai, India, August 10, 2023. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas
Go DeeperAs India votes, young workers hope for jobs and better pay

Election workers like Dwivedi paid a heavy price over the six weeks of voting with dozens dying from heatstroke alongside scores of other people across the country as temperatures soared, hitting a record of around 49 C (120.2 F) in the capital Delhi in late May.

Another poll worker, who did not want to be named, was angry as he sat in the sweltering hut.

"We are the frontline of the (political) parties but we are treated as dispensable. If the (Election) Commission can't, our parties could have made some arrangements for us," he said.

It was not the first time I had encountered anger and frustration as I crisscrossed this vast country over two months, interviewing those who would cast their ballots in the world's biggest election. And it was not just the heat that was fuelling discontent.

Now that the results from the vote are in, it seems clear that anger over high rates of rural unemployment, stagnant wages, the high cost of living and farmers' shrinking incomes, partly because of the extreme weather caused by climate change, had a role to play in costing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's party its overall majority in parliament.

Despite this setback, Modi is expected to be sworn in for a record-equalling third term after key allies pledged their continued support.

His Bharatiya Janata Party will have to find a way to address some of these multiple interlinked frustrations as it seeks to balance the demands of the new coalition.

The election has also raised another question that goes to the heart of how countries worldwide are having to adapt to the multiple, undeniable realities of our changing climate.

Will India be able to hold elections during summer months in the future as heatwaves become longer and more intense?

Before this vote, India's Election Commission issued guidelines meant to mitigate the effects of the forecast heatwaves. Polling stations were supposed to have shade, water, oral hydration and medical kits for emergencies.

But as I travelled from one polling centre to another, I found a wide disparity with polling stations often better equipped in cities and towns while in some villages I found fragile canopies too small to cover more than a dozen people.

As voting ended, Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar said the biggest learning point from the election was that the poll process should be completed before summer, according to Indian press reports.

One thing is for sure: with heatwaves breaking records around the world, this is not just a question for India, and as always, it is the poorest people across the world who will pay the highest price for the increasingly dramatic effects of our changing climate.

(Reporting by Bhasker Tripathi; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

Context is powered by the Thomson Reuters Foundation Newsroom.

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles

Women wait in a queue to cast their votes at a polling station during Rajasthan state assembly election in Ajmer, India, November 25, 2023

Part of:

India votes: stories from the world’s biggest election

As over 969 million Indians vote in the world's biggest election, explore key issues through the lenses of climate, technology, and inclusive economy in our coverage

Updated: May 03, 2024


  • Extreme weather
  • Climate and health

Get our climate newsletter. Free. Every week.

By providing your email, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

Latest on Context