By Nida Najar, The New York Times, May 27, 2015
NEW DELHI — Large swaths of India were baking again on Wednesday under intense heat that has killed more than 1,300 people and left the government scrambling to warn an often unheeding population about the dangers of stepping outside in the blazing midday sun.
Temperatures surpassed 116 degrees in some places in recent days, and were higher than normal even in coastal districts that are typically cooled by easterly winds.
Most of the deaths were reported in southern India, in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, with more than 1,000 people killed in Andhra Pradesh alone since May 18, said Pusuli Rani, an official with the state’s Disaster Management Department.
May is typically one of the hottest months of the year in India, with the heat building before the onset of the cooling monsoon season. Yet every year the heat seems to catch residents and the government by surprise.
The high temperatures are the result of hot winds blowing in from the west, leading one local news channel to call the phenomenon a “heat bomb” from Pakistan. B. P. Yadav, of the India Meteorological Department, said the winds had made things worse this year, and contributed to delaying much needed rains in the south. New Delhi, he said, will cool down over the coming days, but heat up again by the end of the month.
The government in Telangana was working with local nongovernmental organizations to provide buttermilk and drinking water to residents through village councils. In Andhra Pradesh, government warnings were broadcast on television and radio urging people to stay inside, especially between noon and 4 p.m.
“It has been quite unbearable,” said L. V. Subramanyam, the special chief secretary of Andhra Pradesh, adding that most of the deaths were among the elderly, laborers and the homeless.
“We cannot restrict people’s movements over a month,” Mr. Subramanyam said.
In Delhi, which has suffered days of unrelenting heat, with temperatures reaching a high of 113 degrees on Monday, people clutched well-worn plastic juice bottles, refilled at public drinking fountains in temples and mosques. A vendor splashed water from a construction site on his tower of fresh coconut pieces; a beggar bathed his leathery forearms in water from a plastic bottle; and vegetable sellers smothered their stock in wet gunny sacks, doused every 15 minutes.
At the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, one of Delhi’s largest public hospitals, families arrived with patients from villages all over the country, waiting for appointments inside the gate. Respite from the heat became a cat-and-mouse game with elusive shade. Kamla Prashad Ahirwal, who rolls crude cigarettes, called beedis, said the worst came at night, when the hospital cut off access to the water fountain and he was forced to gulp down progressively hotter water.
“Even as I’m drinking the water, I can’t feel it,” he said. “I’m still thirsty.”
Dr. Gaurav Muvalia, a resident in the hospital’s emergency room, said patients suffering from heatstroke typically came in with fevers and delirium. “They’re not in their right mind; they don’t know what they’re saying,” he said.
Hospital staff members wrap the patients in wet sheets to bring down their body temperatures, Dr. Muvalia said. In a previous summer, one cycle rickshaw driver, he recalled, came in with a fever of 104. He was wiped down with cold sponges and given intravenous fluids.
Many people built their own defenses against the inescapable weather. A group of unemployed day laborers in south Delhi were bathing three times a day in a leaking pipe that sprayed a fountain of cold water.
Some lucky Delhi residents had air coolers — a downscale variety consisting of a metal box, wet straw, and a fan.
Privthi Raj, 50, a day laborer, said he would not return to work until the monsoons come, which could be a while. At night, he said, he sleeps under a gazebo in a public park.
“I only think about sleeping next to a cooler,” he said. “If somehow I could get a cooler, I could get some relief.”