India: In killer chill, 500 dead and counting

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TNN, 22 January 2010, 06:17am IST

500 people dead along the vast swathes of North India in its wake. There have been at least two serious train accidents due to fog; flight schedules in Delhi - the capital city has a domino effect on airports across the country - have gone awry.

Historically, Makar Sankranti on January 14 marks the Sun's entry into the northern hemisphere and the end of winter. That's clearly not been the case so far. Uttar Pradesh has taken the brunt of weather's extremity. There have been 450 deaths in the state, nearly 40 in Bihar, while Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana stagger under sub-zero temperatures.

Most deaths have occurred among the poor due to inadequate shelter and lack of warm clothing. Compounding the problem has been rain across North India, including Delhi, UP, Haryana, and Punjab, after which temperatures have fallen further. Amritsar at minus one was the coldest place in the plains. Various regional weather bureaus predict icy winds will continue to blow in from the Himalayas and there isn't much hope of fog dissipating in a hurry either.

Winter was harsh in UP in 1999 and 2003 too. But comparisons shows the state has witnessed one of the "longest spells of cold days" in the past three decades. UP's met director J P Gupta said, "This year, cold has prevailed for longer compared to previous years." Cold and fog related accidents have claimed over 450 lives in UP alone and forced authorities to shut schools until January 20. The government gave Rs 10 crore for blankets and bonfires for the poor but not many benefited. In Lucknow, the administration claimed to have arranged bonfires at 93 places but most were found outside residences of MLAs and newspaper offices. "We expect the density of fog to ease in coming days," said Gupta. But east and central UP will continue to remain fogged out over the next few days.

In Bihar, temperatures have been well below normal through January. More than 40 deaths have taken place so far, but the state government is mum on the figures - perhaps apprehending a backlash in an election year. Major towns and cities like Gaya, Bhagalpur, and Purnia are hovering around a minimum of five to nine degrees. "I do not remember a Saraswati Puja when one had to put on such a lot of warm clothing," said a trembling Patna septuagenarian Dinesh Prasad.

In Punjab, Rajasansi International Airport at Amritsar has been grappling with delays and virtually every train is arriving and leaving the city station several hours late. On Thursday, Amritsar recorded minus one degree with visibility down to zero.

According to Chatar Singh of the Chandigarh met office, "Conditions will remain more or less the same until

January 28-29." The met office predicts a "fresh western disturbance in western Himalaya and adjoining plains of Northwest India from January 23 onwards. Attendance in schools and offices, which has been lower than average, is likely to remain so. Only two deaths have occurred in Punjab so far. Gurdwaras across Punjab have been distributing blankets and sheltering the homeless and indigent.

In Haryana, fog has killed more people than the cold wave. State DGP Ranjeev Dalal has issued an advisory asking motorists to avoid driving in the night.

In Himachal Pradesh, people can deal with the cold but, surprisingly, it just isn't snowing and raining enough this year, threatening crops and flower growers. "There has been less than 70% below normal precipitation which will badly affect the farmers," said Manmohan Singh of the Himachal met department. Worryingly, the maximum temperature remains five to six degrees above normal spelling doom for apple and cherry growers who need at least 1,200 to 1,800 hours of chill during the season.