23 April 2024

Living and Working through Heatwaves in Urban Chennai- Field Reflections


Chennai is a city where people have been historically acclimated to warm weather conditions. During my initial period of fieldwork it was difficult to discuss heat with my field participants. The common responses reflected the habitual living with heat such as, “Chennai is always hot. We have been living with it and used to it” or “You know the saying right? Chennai has three weather conditions it is hot, hotter or hottest. It is not much of a concern to us.”


By Suchismita Goswami, PhD researcher with the University of Copenhagen

Globally heat is becoming an urgent disaster that needs to be acted upon. Heatwaves are progressively becoming more severe with increasing frequency. Recently a study conducted by The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reported a total of 329 heatwave days in India in the last two years (Mishra, 2024). The Indian Meteorological Department forecasted that 2024 will continue to have elevated temperatures for longer numbers of heatwaves even in 2024 due to El Nino affects (Harigovind, 2024). Even though the hotter days are expanding everyday behavior and adaptation means are unequal and only people with privilege can access them (Khandekar et al 2023.; Stechemesser & Wenz, 2023).

A major strand of our Urban Resettlement and Disaster Risk project and my research specifically attempts to understand risks associated with heat and adaptation capacities among urban poor located in the peripheries of the cities. This study is located in the resettlement sites of Chennai, a city located in the southern eastern part of India. Chennai is a coastal city located near the thermal equator for which it faces high humidity along with rising temperatures.  Similar to many other parts of the world it has been reported in Chennai that summer is approaching much earlier and with much intensity making it a much hotter place than usual (Bureau, 2023).  It has been difficult to attribute heat-related health impacts and deaths due to the reporting criteria and narrow definitions of heatstroke (Tripathi, 2020).

Large-scale resettlement sites are critical in understanding heat impacts due to their inbuilt design and the state’s imagination of amassing tall vertical buildings for housing thousands of urban poor. Here the communities are most vulnerable to the impacts of heat as they are forced to navigate their everydayness of risks within the resettlement site due to a lack of livelihood, adequate housing and resources.  As per a  2021 survey, only 5% of the total geographical area of Chennai had green cover (Sundaram 2022). The green cover in resettlement sites in the extreme peripheries of the cities is almost none to minimal as they are built by encroaching on the lakes and natural water sources. Secondly, due to lack of livelihood opportunities in the peripheries, the communities need to regularly commute about 30 to 35 km to the city center to earn their livelihood. A few of them also build small, makeshift shops within the resettlement sites. The shops are usually built of asbestos or tarpaulin sheets which are known to trap more heat in a condensed place. Those who are more vulnerable and do not have the capacity to invest in any form of informal physical shops are found to sell their merchandise in large bags or in vessels which helps them to set up portable setups within the resettlement site. Additionally, the resettlement sites are spanned out over a large area, meaning the connecting road and other basic amenities are located far off from their residential units. This leads to long and multiple commutes under direct exposure to the sun, rendering the communities extremely vulnerable to heat.

It can be challenging to discuss heat with the community due to its inherent material invisibility along with heat being often influenced by factors like humidity and pollution (Khandekar et al 2023). Additionally, Chennai is a city where people have been historically acclimated to warm weather conditions. During my initial period of fieldwork it was difficult to discuss heat with my field participants. The common responses reflected the habitual living with heat such as, “Chennai is always hot. We have been living with it and used to it” or “You know the saying right? Chennai has three weather conditions it is hot, hotter or hottest. It is not much of a concern to us.” Through my yearlong immersion in the field, I have identified three approaches that aided me in talking about heat in places where temperatures remain high throughout the year.

Longitudinal Presence in the Field: This continual engagement encouraged me to make sense of the ‘everyday life’ of the communities by participating in them for an extended period (Hammersly and Atkinson 1983:2). This helped me in unpacking how the communities dwell, cope and strategizes amidst heat. The timeframe leads to observing the various daily and temporal heat mitigation means in the field setting. One noteworthy observation captured in my field notes is as follows:

“More and more roadside shops are closed down from 1 PM these days. The few that are open are covered with big sheets in front of them- making it barely possible for one to understand from the outside if the establishments are at all open and what merchandise they are selling. The vegetable and fruit shop owners were seen to sprinkle water with their own hands on the items to keep them fresh and I could hardly see  temporary fish shops to be out in the open past noon.”

Being present in the field for extended periods and observations of daily life have enabled me to identify specific changes in urban spatial practice beyond quotidian norms. Continuous presence in the field over changing seasons and weather conditions facilitates the observation of such practices.

Participatory Tools: The use of different participatory tools in the community helped the researcher in deep engagement with heat in resettlement sites. Deep Hanging (Geertz 1998) as a method aided in an immersive experience which helped in a deeper understanding of the field. Visual aids like the use of pictures during FGDs and storytelling about their whole day aided in enriching the discussions on heat. Lastly while being part of a study program with Disaster Management Students we employed a community risk assessment tool known as the seasonal calendar from the Evaluation of Vulnerability and Capacity Assessment (EVCA) toolkit. This tool enabled the mapping out of different seasons as experienced by the community who were resettled and particularly opened up the range of risks and vulnerabilities faced by them during the peak hot seasons in a year. Discussions steaming from this tool threw light on livelihood patterns, savings, food intake, health, children's safety and even drinking habits among men during the hot season. These tools led to further in-depth discussion regarding the capacities present within the communities to navigate these risks. The findings gathered from these discussions helped in developing important probes for subsequent interviews and group discussions. They also helped in identifying groups of people and spaces that are most exposed to heat in the resettlement site.

Experiencing heat as an insider: as a researcher going to the field in the peak summer months also ensured my own embodied experience with heat. While conducting fieldwork in Chennai there is no way one cannot reflect on the impact of heat, the risks, and the heat mitigation technique adopted by the researcher herself. The reflections of my own experience with heat were carefully positioned with the situated knowledge and my own privileged positionality. I used reflexivity as a tool to constantly navigate looking ‘inward’ the identity of my own self and ‘outward’ at the context of the communities while analyzing particular heat-related risks and adaptation mechanisms(Rose 1997:309). 

Funding: This project Disaster Risk Creation in Urban Resettlement Processes has received funding from Independent Research Fund Denmark. The project is led by Emmanuel Raju, University of Copenhagen. 

If you would like to know more about Suchismita Goswami’s work, please contact her via email.


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