After the third day without power, the residents of Kasia Bagan had enough.
Their city of Kolkata was in the midst of a blistering heat wave, with temperatures rising to 105 degrees, making life in the narrow lanes and in their tiny one-room homes nearly unbearable. It was Ramadan as well, and many in the predominantly Muslim enclave were fasting. At about 6:30 p.m., word spread that an elder in the community had died of heat stroke.
Angry residents gathered in the dark lane, their voices rising, faces lit only by their cellphone screens. Even after the sun had gone down, they were still sweating through their clothes. When would the lights come back on? How could they live like this, let alone bury their dead? Why did the luxury shopping mall at the end of the block still have power, while they did not?
Sana Mumtaz, a divorced mother of three who lives on the lane with eight relatives in one room, felt her neighbors’ anger growing out of control.
“It is so hot that people are dying here,” she said. “People were putting up with power cuts and making adjustments for several days. But the death in the neighborhood triggered them.”
Mumtaz’s neighborhood, her city, her country — her very life as a poor Indian woman — reflect one of the world’s greatest emerging disparities in the era of extreme heat.
India already faces dire heat risks and is likely to be the most-threatened country in the world by 2030, according to an analysis of climate data by The Washington Post and the nonprofit modeling group CarbonPlan, with more than 770 million people living in highly dangerous conditions at least two weeks per year.
Because of its growing wealth and increasingly prosperous middle class, India will have the resources to protect many of its residents from the worst effects of rising temperatures, unlike many poorer nations.
But Kolkata, a city of more than 4.5 million in eastern India, is a microcosm of who will benefit from that protection and who won’t. A vast population will face risks of heat-related sickness and death, according to a Post examination that included interviews with residents and experts, as well as data analysis, the use of advanced sensor technology to measure neighborhood exposures, drone footage and public records research.
Since 1950, Kolkata’s average temperature has risen more than any megacity studied — by 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s expected to keep soaring, along with more intense cyclones, monsoon rainfalls and rampant flooding.
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The analysis by The Post and CarbonPlan, published earlier this month, showed how cities worldwide are seeing a soaring number of hot days so dangerous that spending a short amount of time outside — even in the shade — could threaten someone’s health. Kolkata had 11 such days in 2000 — a number that is projected to jump to 25 days by 2030. That would make it the fifth-worst-affected megacity in the world.
As life gets hotter, residents who are crowded into slums or unauthorized colonies — one-third of the city’s population — will be the most at risk for health problems, heat stroke and death, experts say, while wealthier neighbors who live in air-conditioned homes on leaf-shaded streets will fare better.
In Kasia Bagan, the fancy shopping mall with high-end stores had for a decade provided jobs and a bit of civic pride, though few living nearby could afford to actually shop there. But now the Quest Mall became a symbol of something else — the injustice in their lives.
That night in April, an idea took root and rippled through the restive crowd. The owner of the mall was a billionaire who also owned Kolkata’s electric company, so they made plans to go to the mall and demand their electricity be fixed. A man had died — surely they would be heard now. “We can’t sleep at night!” said one woman. “We are being ignored, we won’t tolerate this!” a man shouted.
The small mob began moving up the lane, past lines of scooters and water jugs, an alleyway cow, clothes drying on a line, and the butcher shop where flies still circled although the day’s cutting was long done. They crossed the street and paused before the mall’s Gate No. 3. The building jutted like a giant cruise ship above their heads, its edifice a patchwork of blue glass. Every floor glowed with light.
After some shouting, the security guards let them in. The air inside the mall was cool. It smelled of sandalwood, lilies and imported chocolates chilled to a perfect 60 degrees. The fountain splashed outside Gucci and the Rolex store, where you could buy a watch for $91,000, shut tight for the night. The men sat on the marble floor, unsure what would happen next.
Nine people and one bed
Mumtaz’s neighborhood is home to about 7,000 working-class people who live in concrete apartment blocks so crowded that life spills out into its narrow lanes, where residents gossip, wash clothes and set out plates of mango to be dried and pickled. She grew up in the windowless room she lives in today with daughters Zariyat, 9, and Alina, 4, and six other relatives, separated from the lane by only a flowered cloth. There is only one bed.
The Quest Mall — at the end of Mumtaz’s lane — opened in 2013 with the promise of bringing the finest designer brands to the city’s affluent, built on land that was once a tram depot in the middle of Kasia Bagan, where many residents do not have running water or their own bathrooms. Its developer, Sanjiv Goenka, is a Kolkata billionaire who owns a soccer club, the power utility and a cricket franchise.
Mumtaz’s neighborhood is a product of the city’s unregulated housing construction boom, which contributes to its climate vulnerability. The city, part of a larger metropolis of over 14 million, was once the capital of British India, which left behind stately homes following the country’s independence in 1947.
Decades of rampant urbanization followed, leaving the city without a proper storm water or sewage drainage system and straining its fragile electrical grid, experts say. Developers razed blocks of graceful neem, banyan and peepal trees, leaving Kolkata with the least shading tree cover of any Indian megacity, according to India’s State of the Forest report from 2021. Slums proliferated.
“What you see in India is that there is an inbuilt inequality at all levels,” said Ashish Avikunthak, a University of Rhode Island professor who grew up in Kolkata. With these new upscale developments such as the mall, he added, “a new kind of class inequality is inflicted.”
Twice a day, water flows to the public taps in Mumtaz’s neighborhood, once in the early morning and once in the evening. One recent summer evening, a crowd of women gathered to wait for the water, gossiping and jostling for their place in line. The sun was setting, but it was still oppressively hot, well over 100 degrees. When the water began trickling from the tap, they pressed forward, filling their water bottles, buckets and pots for the day’s cooking and washing.
Mumtaz, 28, let several women jump her spot while she waited, fanning herself with the thin cotton veil that’s traditional in this conservative neighborhood. Every day, she is responsible for securing water for her household of nine and is often called out for taking too much.
She hung back a little, partly as an act of goodwill, partly to avoid conflict. Disputes at a water pump in a nearby neighborhood led to a deadly fight, and that hung heavily on her mind: “Imagine people are killing each other for water in this city,” she said.
Mumtaz rolled up her sleeves and had just begun filling her bottles when two men on a motorcycle whizzed past them, honking vigorously. She threw a bottle and rushed to confront them.
“Can you not see that we are trying to fill water here? It is already so hot, why do you have to keep honking like that and irritate us?” she asked one of the riders, an elderly gentleman who looked taken aback. “Had you not been this old, I would have hit you.”
Mumtaz turned back, still angry, but a young man bathing at an adjacent pump joked, “You are right, Sana. Why don’t you go ahead and give him a whack?” The women erupted into laughter. The elderly man smiled. Mumtaz’s anger evaporated.
Mumtaz had to take several trips back and forth from the tap to her flat before she ferried enough water to keep her family — her two daughters, three siblings, aunt, uncle and grandmother — supplied for the next 12 hours.
At home, she opened their small refrigerator and began stacking it with water bottles as her younger daughter hung by her elbow and soaked up the refreshing cool gust of the open door. They keep the refrigerator turned on and stocked with cool water to offer neighbors at all times, she said.
“This way, we get blessings from everyone,” Mumtaz said. “We never say no to anybody who asks for cold water.”
It’s not easy to live as a single woman in a society that frowns upon divorce, and she tries to get by with her cheeky smile and offers of help to neighbors in need. But sometimes, like today when the bikers came honking down the lane, the stressors of daily life become too much. “All the goddesses and demons reside in me,” she told one of her sisters.
Although the mall’s blue glass exterior is visible from many vantage points in the neighborhood, Mumtaz has gone inside only once in the last year, to celebrate her friend’s wedding anniversary. She dressed in her finest sari and bought the only snacks in the food court they could afford — pav bhaji, a mix of dinner rolls and spicy vegetable curry. Mumtaz’s daughter said the mall was so pretty she wanted to build a home there.
But for nearly a year, Mumtaz’s brother, Ehteshamul Haque, 20, has been working as a trainee in counter sales at the Nautica store inside the mall.
Each morning before work, he rises from the family’s bed — where he has been given sleeping rights — splashes cold water on his face at the communal bathroom and eats a quick breakfast of toast and tea before walking to work.
After working inside all day, Haque said that when he emerges outside to furnace-like temperatures he often feels dizzy and sick to his stomach. “It’s a heaven and hell difference,” he said.
From his post behind the counter, he watches with envy as prosperous families browse Nautica’s racks. “You can always tell who has AC and who doesn’t,” he said.
‘Humiliated in our homes’
The April 16 sit-in at the Quest Mall came at the beginning of a deadly spring heat wave that spread across Asia and set temperature records in Thailand, Indonesia and China. That same day in Mumbai, 13 people had died of heat stroke during an outdoor government awards ceremony. In Kolkata, schools were closed, and buses reduced service. Newspapers reported people passing out along the side of the road. Officials begged people to stay indoors.
Then, Sheikh Janu died.
Janu, a patrician gentleman who was a landlord to many in the neighborhood, had recently had a stroke and was partially paralyzed. Now the heat proved too much. News of his death spread quickly through the community.
Already Janu’s Muslim neighbors had been forced to search fruitlessly for candles and use phone flashlights to read their daily prayers, Mumtaz said. How, she now wondered, would they be able to prepare and preserve his body for burial with no electricity?
Her neighbor, Ambiay Qureshi, 25, had come home that day after a long shift at his butcher shop. To escape the complaints of women in his extended family and the wailing of nieces and nephews, he recalled, he went to the grassy playground behind Kasia Bagan’s community center. But he grew ever more irritated.
“We felt humiliated in our homes. Anybody who runs a business just wants to come back home after a long day at work and breathe in peace,” he said.
A few hours later, while Mumtaz stayed behind, Qureshi joined the throng of protesters who entered the mall. They knew that Goenka, the mall’s owner, also ran the electric company, so their idea was to ask him for help, they said. Goenka did not return The Post’s requests for comment.
Inside, the air was like a balm. Qureshi sat down on the floor. Another protester curled up for a nap. Others played games on their phones.
“Nothing untoward happened,” he said. “The only thing we were asking them is why our complaints were not being heard.”
Maroofa Nawaz Ahmed/YouTube
The police arrived, and security guards escorted the protesters out after about an hour and a half into the demonstration. The electric company — whose officials did not comment — then fixed the problem with what seemed to Qureshi like amazing speed. In a few hours, an industrial-size generator appeared in the neighborhood. A few days later, long-term repairs were complete. “We got results,” he said.
But videos of the protest had gone viral across India, triggering online posts tinged with religious intolerance. Hindu nationalists on Twitter falsely claimed the Muslim protesters had demanded gifts from the luxury stores for the Eid holiday. Mall officials tamped down the rumors with a Facebook post, urging patrons to “ignore these exaggerated and motivated narratives.”
The criticism stung.
“People told me, ‘You are wrong, you should have not have entered another person’s property like that,’” Qureshi said. “People need to understand why this happened.”
The terrible heat drove them to extremes, he said: “What never happened in 10 years suddenly took place that day.”
‘Death in my building’
It was still dangerously hot in Kasia Bagan one day in June — the temperature topped 100 degrees, the sun beat down and people vanished from the streets, stray dogs sleeping in whatever shade they could find.
Patients packed the free health clinic in the neighborhood’s community center. They were mostly women, of all ages, waiting to see a doctor who comes twice weekly. Mumtaz was among them, having broken out in an itchy heat rash that covered her arms and face. She was so uncomfortable she was finding it more difficult than usual to sit still.
As patients were weighed and checked in, they catalogued a variety of heat-related complaints — skin rashes, insomnia, dizziness, dehydration — then sat down to wait for the doctor, who was a half an hour late.
During this time of the day, when the women have just finished preparing lunch and the afternoon sun is at its cruelest, the center serves as a cooling refuge. Unlike their unventilated rooms, the center is right next to a pond and a playground shaded by a few trees. Windows and fans provide cross ventilation.
“You have gained some weight after your trip to the beach. You must have enjoyed yourself too much!” Rani Sheikh, the center’s director, teased Mumtaz when she joined the queue.
“Hardly. I burned my skin and now I have these itchy rashes all over my hands and legs,” Mumtaz said. “I could not sleep at all last night because of the death in my building.”
News of this tragedy elicited murmurs of surprise and sympathy in the room.
Nazra Begum, 51, was a homemaker and mother of four grown children who lived in Mumtaz’s building. She was one of the few women who joined protesters outside the mall and spoke to local reporters.
On May 31, Begum had become sick to her stomach and began vomiting. Her husband took her to the local hospital, where doctors said she had passed out because of complications related to heat exposure. Begum died later that evening, one of four people in Kasia Bagan known to have died this year from the heat, according to Javed Rahman, a social worker in the neighborhood.
“She was a very brave woman,” Mumtaz said. “We were all suffering, but no other woman had the guts to protest in front of the media houses, but she did.”
Mumtaz had to wait nearly two hours to be seen by the doctor, who prescribed an ointment for the rash. It was now almost time to repeat her twice-daily journey to the water taps to fill bottles. She was exhausted and grieving the loss of her friend.
“We ate almost all our meals together. Now I don’t feel like eating at all,” she said tearfully.
At home, she snapped at her two daughters, who kept opening the refrigerator door to enjoy the cool air. “Can’t you see I’m not well?” she said, exasperated.
Arup Halder, a climate advocate and pulmonologist at Calcutta Medical Research Institute, said cases of heat stroke and heat deaths in the city are “creeping up every summer” and will only get worse. Cataloguing heat-related deaths is difficult, Halder said, because medical professionals still list the immediate cause of death such as stroke or cardiac arrest, without listing heat as factor.
“Awareness is low,” Halder said. “We know on the whole heat kills but how much it kills is a present problem.”
Princeton University’s Ramanan Laxminarayan, an epidemiologist and economist, said the rising temperatures will cause far more cases of heat stress and death while fostering the spread of cholera and dengue fever.
“Indians are disproportionately exposed to these effects, and it’s a huge risk that India is totally unprepared for,” Laxminarayan said.
While the Indian government periodically publishes death counts related to extreme heat, global health experts say that the country has significantly understated its impact. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, annual heat deaths over the past decade have ranged from several hundred to around 2,000.
Recent peer-reviewed studies estimate that heat causes closer to 90,000 excess deaths a year in India.
“That government statistic is just not serious,” said Prabhat Jha, author of a University of Toronto study that cross-referenced daily death counts from 8,000 locations across India with local climate data.
Jha said the problem in India is that only 7 in 10 deaths are registered, and certain groups — women and residents of poorer states, for example — are being systematically undercounted.
Later that day, after the health clinic closed, Rahman sat inside the community center, still worrying that Qureshi and the others could be charged with criminal trespassing. A tall standing fan whirred in the corner.
Rahman, 42, called “elder brother” by everyone in this neighborhood, has long volunteered for Kasia Bagan’s social committee, founded during his grandparents’ day. The group helps run social programs funded by the Quest Mall, whose officials did not return requests for comment. He had an air of exhaustion, not just from the heat but from juggling his social work, job as a construction contractor and his wife’s treatment for a brain aneurysm. Rising temperatures and changing weather patterns have profoundly changed life in Kasia Bagan, he said.
“The winter has shrunk to just one month now. March used to be the month of spring when I was growing up. This year it was extremely hot,” he said. “We are already reeling under the effect of climate change in Kolkata and West Bengal.”
Rahman and other community workers had been warning residents to avoid being outdoors, part of outreach that includes passing out packets of rehydration powder and holding nutrition camps.
He had already written an apology letter to the mall, hoping it would keep the protesters out of legal trouble. Now he wanted to dictate something else.
For months, Rahman had been urging the city to replace the broken and burned-out lights around the playground behind the center so children could play there in the evening. Maybe now the city would fix them, given how the mall protest had gone viral.
He summoned an English-speaking colleague and asked her to take out pen and paper. When she was settled, he started dictating the letter to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation.
“Subject. Regarding the lights at Kasia Bagan,” he began.
No relief from the heat
The next day, Mumtaz’s condition worsened. Her throat hurt. Her joints hurt. She could barely summon the energy to speak to anybody at the morning taps. She couldn’t find the ointment for her rash the doctor prescribed in the market.
“Sometimes it feels like the skin is going to come off. It is not actually coming off. But it feels like that,” she said.
Unable to tackle her household duties, Mumtaz sought refuge in her uncle’s air-conditioned home nearby to get a bit of rest.
She and her family have thought about getting an air conditioner — the cheapest ones cost about $200 — but aren’t sure whether they can afford it, as the family largely depends on Haque’s income of about $96 a month and a bit more family support. Also, the appliances tend to cause trouble in packed-in urban settings. Her aunt had one installed, she recalled, but it blew hot air into a neighbor’s home, triggering complaints.
Air conditioning “gives you peace but it causes problems to others,” she said. “If you don’t have one, there is no relief from the heat.”
Running the appliance can cost a third of a worker’s monthly salary, which ranges from $120 to $144 a month, Rahman said.
The Climate Impact Lab, a group of economists and scientists, estimates that without measures like widespread air conditioning, higher temperatures would lead to several hundred thousand added deaths by 2040.
In 2020, just 12 percent of Indians had air conditioning in their homes, a number that will rise to 50 percent by 2050 — along with the country’s energy consumption, according to a 2021 study from scientists at the University of California at Berkeley.
But only those who make $10,000 a year or more typically install air conditioning, according to Lucas Davis, one of the study’s co-authors.
“So we expect to see a divergence of our kind, where the rich adopt air conditioning, and the poor do not,” Davis said. He added research has shown that, during extreme heat waves, air conditioning “literally makes the difference between life and death.”
Ronita Bardhan, a Kolkata native who is an expert in sustainable architecture and an associate professor at the University of Cambridge, said that Kasia Bagan’s built environment — excessive concrete, packed buildings and metal roofs that trap heat — adds to the misery residents face. After reviewing aerial drone footage filmed by The Post, she noted that the towering mall blocks ventilation and its glass facade reflects heat back into the neighborhood.
Using data from a sophisticated heat sensor mounted on a backpack, The Post found that Kasia Bagan’s sunny lanes were 10 degrees hotter than in a shady park nearby.
Overall, there was a big temperature gap between the city’s lower-income neighborhoods and more affluent and suburban locales.
The air temperature in Salt Lake, a planned suburban community that sits about seven miles northeast of Mumtaz’s neighborhood and was built in the 1960s, was about 5 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in Kasia Bagan. The community is heavily shaded, with tree cover exceeding 30% in some areas, according to The Post’s analysis. By contrast, the area around Kasia Bagan has just 14 percent tree cover, extremely low for a tropical climate.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a lack of investment in Kolkata’s segregated, poor neighborhoods leaves them highly vulnerable to the city’s expected climate catastrophes, including high-intensity cyclones. The Bay of Bengal is warming, and the Sunderbans — the fragile mangrove ecosystem that long protected the city — are being lost to sea level rise, which in turn propels hundreds of climate migrants a year to Kolkata’s slums.
“The government does not have a vision or climate action plan that we can see at the moment,” Ajay Mittal, 32, an activist and the director for India and South Asia for Earth Day.
Across India, only 37 cities and states have heat emergency plans, according to a recent study by the Center for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank. Kolkata is not among them.
The city’s mayor, Firhad Hakim, announced with some fanfare in June that the city was developing a climate action plan, focused on preventing flooding and expanding green energy.
The plan would expand the city’s efforts to plant more trees and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, notes Debasish Kumar, the city’s director of parks and gardens. Kolkata’s parks are now lit by solar lights, and the city is phasing in a plan for 1,200 electric buses.
“There are no short-term methods,” Kumar said. “We destroyed the environment over a long time, you can’t expect it to be fixed overnight. We are just starting the process.”
Map showing tree cover in Kolkata, India
Mittal criticized the city for doing little to protect residents in extreme heat “other than issuing alerts from time to time” and shuttering schools. The government and civil society must take better care of the elderly and vulnerable, he said, by creating shaded structures on the street, distributing umbrellas and ordering work times be shifted to cooler parts of the day.
“The government should look at the Quest Mall incident with alarm, for how the law and its institutions can be challenged in future because of heat,” Mittal said. “Today they went inside the mall, tomorrow they could go inside a clinic, a showroom or a shop … Why should they not? They are desperate and they need relief.”
Some Indian cities are taking action. After a heat wave killed more than 1,300 people in 2010, Ahmedabad developed one of the country’s first heat emergency plans, which stresses an early warning system and community outreach — and recommends using malls as cooling centers.
This plan has been a success and is being modeled elsewhere in the country, officials say. A study led by University of Washington professor Jeremy Hess estimated that the plan helped prevent 2,380 deaths in the two years after its launch in 2013.
‘Can’t be satisfied with so little’
The city finally fixed the lights at Kasia Bagan’s playground, and the neighborhood threw a cricket tournament to celebrate. Dozens came to see the finale and the playground’s opening ceremony one June evening. Politicians gave speeches. A DJ blasted Bollywood music. Two cheerleaders — wearing dark leggings — climbed on a small stage and waved silver pompoms in the air.
Rahman watched the games from atop the roof of the center, but he rejected the idea that he had won some small victories, even though he had persuaded authorities to avoid charging the protesters and got the lights back on after the playground had been dark for months.
“Everything takes an extra push here,” he said. “I have to run behind so many people who are indifferent to people’s problems. I have to remind them of their duties. We can’t be satisfied with so little.”
Mumtaz, not a fan of cricket, stayed away. In her tiny room, she read Chapter 18 of the Quran to calm her stress, made a dinner of rice and vegetables, and got her girls ready for bed. After the children and elders fell asleep, she and her sisters changed into flowy nightgowns for their nightly session of gossip and checking phones to see what their cousins were posting online.
In the end, Mumtaz said she had doubts about what the protest achieved. She felt the protesters had not showed enough decorum inside the mall, showing up in their nightclothes and playing on their phones.
Mumtaz is left to wonder what will become of her family in this neighborhood, with temperatures rising and rising and an air conditioner out of reach.
“It is so hot,” she said, “we cannot survive this way.”
Kalpana Pradhan contributed to this report.
About this story
Additional photography by Ronny Sen. Design and development by Hailey Haymond and Emily Sabens. Additional development by Yutao Chen. Editing by Monica Ulmanu, Stuart Leavenworth, Juliet Eilperin, Olivier Laurent, Amanda Voisard, Joe Moore, John Farrell, Mina Haq, Tom Justice and Jay Wang.
To recreate the lane in Kasia Bagan in 3D, The Post used drone footage, photos and reporting on the ground. Experts Ronita Bardhan, associate professor of Cambridge University and Holly Samuelson, associate professor of Harvard University, were consulted to evaluate the heat dynamics in the area.
The Post measured air temperature, humidity, wind and solar radiation across Kolkata using a set of portable climate sensors provided by Climateflux. Local readings were compared to hourly reanalysis data from ERA5 to account for hourly or daily weather fluctuations.
Past and future projected days of highly dangerous heat are based on a Washington Post and CarbonPlan analysis, which modeled wet-bulb globe temperatures around the world.
The vegetation map shows the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), a widely used indicator of healthy vegetation. The map shows the mean NDVI across the time period from March to May 2023. Tree cover percentages for selected locations were calculated using the i-Tree canopy tool developed by The United States Forest Service.