The Heat Is Online

Cold Snap Kills at least 1,600 in South Asia

Poor hit hard in South Asia's big freeze

Month-long cold wave hammers parts of India, Bangladesh, and Nepal

The Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2003

NEW DELHI, India (AP) -- It's for people like Shashi Bala that the cold sweeping South Asian bites the fiercest. In her crowded New Delhi shantytown, where unemployment and disease are rampant and poverty the norm, she stays warm amid near-freezing temperatures because she has no choice.

She has no heater and no hot water. She has to walk to find a toilet or running water. She supports her disabled husband and 2-year-old daughter with the tiny income she gets renting out a small storefront.

"If I started feeling the cold then how would I go on?" she demanded.

As a month-long cold wave hammers parts of India, Bangladesh and Nepal, it is the poor who fare the worst in the daily fight against dropping temperatures.

On some days, dozens of them lose that fight. By Tuesday, more than 1,600 people, many of them poor or homeless, had died of the cold across South Asia.

Thirty-nine more people died overnight Tuesday in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, raising the death toll in India to 858. No deaths were reported Tuesday from Bangladesh or Nepal, where a total of 774 people have died of the cold since December 20.

The regional temperatures would be cosy for January if this was North Dakota or Helsinki, Finland. But in South Asia, where winters are normally short and mild, millions live in shacks or mud-and-thatch houses without heat or electricity. Millions more have no homes and sleep outdoors.

In Delhi, where the average January temperature is 14 degrees Celsius (58 degrees Fahrenheit), the Sunday temperature dropped as low as 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit).

The longest New Delhi cold wave in decades has been compounded by power outages that left many neighborhoods with two-to-three hour electricity outages Sunday, and a thick nightly fog that can reduce visibility to under 30 meters (100 feet).

Power outages

The fog has repeatedly shut down New Delhi's airports, and caused extensive train delays -- some lasting well over a day.

In wealthier neighborhoods, the rush for electrical heaters has left some appliance stores sold out.

That's not the kind of problem they face in Yamuna Pushta, a maze-like shantytown that attracts the poorest newcomers to India's capital.

Here, along the polluted banks of the Yamuna River, Bangladeshi immigrants and Indians who have come from rural areas hoping for better lives struggle to keep their families going.

Few have electricity, let alone electrical heaters. Doctors here have seen a spike in bronchial infections and pneumonia.

Bala says she doesn't feel the cold and that even her daughter, Zeva, doesn't let it get to her, playing barefoot in streets covered with garbage and filth.

"I don't know why," she said. Then she answers the question herself, saying she has no choice but to endure.

But plenty of others do feel the cold. A woman named Pratima -- she uses only one name, and just smiles when asked her age -- feels it badly.

She covers herself with a shawl and crouches over a cooking fire to try to keep warm. She doesn't have the money to buy firewood for heat. But she still finds a way to feed rice and meat stew to her dog, a squat, friendly mongrel called Pitu that she lavishes with love.

And nearby, a mechanic for the thousands of bicycle-rickshaw drivers who live here feels it, too. Suraj -- he also uses only one name -- walks into a small wood-and-plastic-sheeting tea stall with his hands covered in grease, his head wrapped in a light brown scarf.

Wishing for election year

"Since the first of January, the cold is very bad," he said, holding his hands out so visitors can feel how frigid they are. He spends up to one-third of his salary, which ranges from 40 rupees to 80 rupees ($0.80 to $1.60) a day on firewood.

But that only keeps his family warm for a few hours, from sundown until about 11 p.m. Hopefully, he says, they're all asleep by midnight and don't feel the worst of the weather.

He wishes that this year was an election year. Then the politicians would hand blankets and food.

"But there are no elections close by, so no one is bringing us blankets," he said.

Forecasters say things could be looking up for the residents of Yamuna Pushta. The cold spell in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is expected to continue into next week, although northwestern India, including New Delhi, is likely to get warmer.

So for millions of poor South Asians, the pain of the cold will continue.

In Patna, the capital of Bihar, the Sunday temperature dropped as low as 4.5 degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit).

"When blankets are distributed, the men push ahead and grab them all. We get nothing," said Bindu Devi, who lives on the street in Patna with her four children.

"I haven't seen any wood either. I'm burning anything my children can find on the streets," she said as she held out her hands to a heap of smoking embers. Around her, the air was heavy with the stench of burning tires.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press

South Asia cold spell worsens

Unusually cold weather is causing hardship -- and even death

The Associated Press, Jan. 16, 2003

NEW DELHI, India (AP) -- Authorities in India's capital scrambled to shelter the homeless from near-freezing temperatures as the death toll from a four-week cold spell across South Asia rose past 1,300, officials and newspaper reports said Thursday.

At least 142 more people have died from the cold since Wednesday in India, Bangladesh and Nepal as thermometers dipped as low as 3 Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit) -- temperatures that can be fatal in a region where winters are typically mild and millions live in homes without heat or electricity.

"I'm freezing. I've hardly anything to keep me warm," said Amena Khatoon, a 50-year-old beggar sitting on a dusty pavement in Dhaka, Bangladesh's capital.

The cold spell brought dense fog that reduced visibility to almost zero and disrupted train and air services in northern India early Thursday.

Winds blowing down from the Himalayas were expected to keep conditions chilly for another three to four days in the states of Punjab, New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, meteorologists said.

The state government of New Delhi waived fees at some of its homeless shelters Wednesday and was reportedly planning new accommodations as the city experienced its most frigid week in five years.

Authorities waived a fee of six rupees (8 cents) per night at shelters for nearly 3,000 homeless people.

The government has also decided to build another 11 shelters by next winter to double capacity, The Times of India newspaper said Thursday.

Schools shut

Lows of 3.5 degrees Celsius (38 degrees Fahrenheit) were recorded, 4 degrees Celsius (39.2 degrees Fahrenheit) below average for this time of year, said a duty officer at the New Delhi Meteorological Department who declined to be identified.

In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where temperatures dropped to 3-4.8 degrees Celsius (37-49 degrees Fahrenheit), 76 people died overnight.

That pushed the death toll to 513 since December 20, said a state government official who was also speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sixty people have perished in India's eastern Bihar state, where officials reported no new casualties Thursday.

Another 62 people, mostly the elderly and children, died in northern Bangladesh, raising to 704 the number of cold-snap victims in the impoverished nation, the Janakantha newspaper reported.

Schools have been shut until next week, and the administration was distributing wood to the homeless for bonfires.

Residents in Dhaka complained of price gouging by merchants taking advantage of the country's coldest winter in six years.

"They are making money from the miseries of people," said housewife Selina Akhter, after buying a woolen pullover for 500 takas ($8) -- more than double the normal price.

In Nepal, four more deaths were reported overnight in southern parts of the Himalayan kingdom, police said. A total of 39 people have died from the cold since last month.