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Indians warm themselves over a fire of waste, something that contributes to the poor air quality. Photo: Twitter
New Delhi

India in the grip of icy cold weather

The past few weeks have seen unusually cold weather sweep across northern India, with disastrous consequences for the millions of Indians who live there and are unaccustomed to the cold.

Published: January 20, 2023, 6:24 am

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    While climate doomsday preachers in the West talk about heat waves and extreme weather when there is mild or warm weather over a period of time, other parts of the world instead experience problems due to the reverse. In northern India, an unusual and prolonged cold wave has held large areas in its iron grip for almost two weeks.

    Thick fog and temperatures around zero degrees in the multi-million city of New Delhi have already claimed many lives through accidents and cold – but another threat comes from the risk of poisoning as the freezing residents of the city set fire to everything they come across, including trash and waste.

    Unusually cold

    The coldest temperatures recorded so far were in the Kashmir province of northern India. There, the temperature in the lowlands has dropped to -7 degrees, which for Europeans may not be remarkable, but for Indians who rarely get weather colder than 6-7 plus degrees on any given day, it is a big difference from what they are used to.

    If the temperature drops below 4 plus degrees, it is considered a cold wave. Last week, the coldest was 1,9 plus degrees in the capital, New Delhi. Meteorologists count this year’s January as the coldest ever in India.

    “I have never in my entire career seen such low temperatures in a forecast. Freezing −4 to +2 on the plains. Wow!” meteorologist Nevdeep Dahiya wrote on Twitter.

    According to Indian meteorologists, the cause of the unusually cold weather is changes in the jet streams that circulate around the Indian peninsula.

    Thick fog and air pollution a dangerous combination

    The thick and persistent fog leads daily to a large number of accidents in New Delhi, which with its 23 million inhabitants has now found itself in a difficult situation. Reports of a lack of food supply have been posted on social media, but so far dismissed by official sources who believe that there have indeed been some interruptions and delays due to traffic accidents around railway stations and roads in and out of the city, but that so far these have not leading to any shortage of food or fuel.

    In the cold and the fog, however, there are two things that primarily give cause for concern for the rulers in the city. On the one hand, there is an unclear number of homeless people (according to many experts it is at least 150 000, possibly closer to 200 000) who lack shelter from the cold weather. The city’s approximately 250 ill-equipped homeless shelters have room for 19 000 people, but have long been filled beyond capacity. The number of dead people who are reported to have frozen to death during the nights and who are picked up during the day is claimed by various aid organizations to be between “dozens” to “hundreds” every day, but no official figure exists.

    But another problem has arisen as tens of thousands of smaller bonfires are lit every day, often fueled by scavenged rubbish. The air pollution that usually plagues the city during the winter months is now considered even worse and the air is filled with toxic gases and pollutants that bind to the water droplets in the fog, weigh down and remain in the city like a toxic blanket. This leads to the very air that the residents are forced to breathe causing lung diseases and a greatly increased risk of cancer as a result.

    The cost in human life of frostbite can thus rise over time, not only because people freeze to death, but because they become poisoned in their attempts to keep warm.

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