Hundreds die in Indian heatwave
Death toll expected to rise as India faces record temperatures of up to 122F in hottest summer on record
By Jason Burke
The Guardian, Sunday 30 May 2010 16.32 BST
Record temperatures in northern India have claimed hundreds of lives in what is believed to be the hottest summer in the country since records began in the late 1800s.
The death toll is expected to rise with experts forecasting temperatures approaching 50C (122F) in coming weeks. More than 100 people are reported to have died in the state of Gujarat where the mercury topped at 48.5C last week. At least 90 died in Maharashtra, 35 in Rajasthan and 34 in Bihar.
Hospitals in Gujarat have been receiving around 300 people a day suffering from food poisoning and heat stroke, ministers said. Officials admit the figures are only a fraction of the total as most of the casualties are found in remote rural villages.
Wildlife and livestock has also suffered with voluntary organisations in Gujarat reporting the deaths of bats and crows and dozens of peacocks reported dead at a forest reserve in Uttar Pradesh.
“Because of the heat, lakes and other water bodies have been reduced to parched land, making dehydration common in such birds,” said Neeraj Srivastava, a wildlife campaigner.
Even India’s northern hill stations – historically a refuge from the heat – have not escaped. Temperatures in Shimla, recorded a peak temperature of 32.4 Celsius, eight degrees hotter than the seasonal average.
After a drought last year, India’s farmers are now impatient for the arrival of the monsoon, which irrigates 60% of India’s fields. National meteorologists have forecast “normal” rains for this year, a relief in a country where prices of basic foodstuffs have rocketed in recent months due to growing shortages and structural problems with agriculture.
Forecasters have predicted that the south-west monsoon could arrive over the southern state of Kerala as early as today, but it is unlikely to reach the parched north before the end of June.
“It’s too long to wait. We’ll all go mad before,” said Sanjoy Kumar, who sells dumplings from a stall in south Delhi.
The capital has sweltered under intense heat for weeks though, having endured temperatures of around 45C last week, dust storms and scattered rain brought some relief over the weekend. The new air-conditioned metro has seen record numbers of passengers as travellers abandon buses, taxis and auto rickshaws.
Parts of the city have suffered prolonged electricity blackouts and, in outlying suburbs, water shortages. In upmarket Mehrauli village, residents were forced to buy from private suppliers plying door to door with tankers. In the new town of Gurgaon, entire apartment blocks have run short. In the city of Nagpur, Maharashtra, petrol pumps ran dry after railway wagons which normally carry fuel were switched to supply water.
The Indian Meterological Department attributes the record heat to lack of atmospheric humidity, hot dry winds blowing across the south-western Thar desert and the effects of last year’s El Nino cycle.
Mean temperatures for both March and April were the highest in more than 100 years.
Columnists have wondered why, given that scorching temperatures in India are inevitable, the heat has become the centre of every conversation. For Jug Suraiya, a well-known writer, the answer lies in the concept of karma and rebirth.
“That’s why we moan and bitch and bellyache,” Suraiya explained in The Times of India newspaper. “Because by doing so we hope in our next incarnation, life will, in all senses of the term, be cool.”