Delhi wilts in India's record summer heatwave

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The Independent Online
NORTHERN India is sizzling under the worst heatwave in over 50 years. In the blistered deserts and hills of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where temperatures have stayed at above 47C (116F) for the past week, over 161 people have died.

Wells are drying up, cattle are dying, and some villagers in Rajasthan have to trek several miles every day for water. Most of the deaths occurred from sunstroke and dehydration, authorities said. The hottest temperature - 50C - was recorded at Dholpur, in Rajasthan.

When things go wrong in India, it is customary to fault Pakistan. It seems Pakistan is to blame when a bank is robbed in Amritsar, when a train jumps the track near Bombay, or when traffic lights go on the blink in New Delhi. And with the weather, it is no different. Much is being made in the Indian newspapers of how the scorching heat and dust storms originated in Pakistan, as if Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto were capable of evil meteorological tampering.

With the white-hot heat, fires have been erupting in Delhi's shanty towns as if by spontaneous combustion. It is now hotter on the streets of Jaipur or at the Taj Mahal in Agra than it is among the dunes of Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter. Every day, fewer and fewer government employees appear at their offices, and many Delhiites seem to spend an inordinate time on their roofs, scanning the sky for an approaching cloud. But lately, the sky is full of dust, not rain.

What appears at first to be a rain cloud reveals itself as a dust storm, which strikes with ferocity and furnace- blast heat. I saw cinema hoardings of garish-faced actors go cartwheeling across the dusty sky, often squashing the ice-cream vendors parked on the flyover. The ice-cream vendors are usually blocking the slow lane, serving rickshaw-wallahs and cyclists exhausted by the long climb up the flyover's hump.

Few among Delhi's 7 million inhabitants have fridges, and many rely on the city's 120 ice houses. Every morning the factories dump out long blocks of ice, which are delivered by boys racing on bicycles around the neighbourhood to reach their destinations before their cargo melts away. Since the heatwave struck, the price of ice has doubled to 120 rupees (30 pence) a block. The ice is often polluted, and as thirst rises in the heat, so does the number of people stricken by gastro-enteritis. Three cholera cases were also reported.

In Delhi, weathermen predict that temperatures will only drop at the end of June, when the monsoon rains sweep up from the south. Blown in from the Arabian Sea, the monsoon marches up from the jungles at the tip of Kerala and through the western flank of the country before it finally reaches Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana.

If the monsoon sputters out midway, as sometimes happens, drought and famine often follow. Its progress is followed like the arrival of a liberating army.

(Photograph omitted)