Too hot even for vultures as Delhi swelters

Tim McGirk New Delhi
Monday 12 June 1995 23:02


New Delhi

India and Pakistan are being roasted by the hottest summer this century. More than 240 people have died in the month-long heatwave searing the north-west of the sub-continent, sending the mercury up to 50C (122F). A fiery red canker on the meteorological maps, the heat wave has spread across north and central India and into parts of Pakistan.

All of Punjab, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and most of Maharashtra states are in its grip.

For more than a month now, the daytime temperatures in northern India have seldom dropped below 43C. In Pakistan, as temperatures soared to 50C in some southern regions, over 22 deaths were recorded last Thursday.

Night offers scarce relief, since temperatures dip only slightly, into the mid 30s.

It is even too hot for vultures to fly. On the spacious boulevard in New Delhi leading to the presidential palace, dozens of the birds waddle on the edge ofponds, unruffled by policemen chasing after naked boys who dare to splash in the municipal waters in full view of the capital's ministers and visiting foreign dignitaries. Housewives angry about dry water taps have staged street protests. The capital depends for its water on neighbouring states and rival political parties have used water as an instrument to taunt the Delhi state government.

It is so hot that just outside New Delhi the other day I saw a motorist who had pulled his overheated car off the road surrounded by thirsty monkeys. They had swung down from the dry, crackling forest and were sitting in a circle like beggars watching him pour water into his steaming radiator.

In Rajasthan, it is even worse for humans. With no rain for over six months, hundreds of wells have dried up, forcing villagers to walk in searing heat up to six miles a day through deserts of stone and thorn trees just for a bucket of water.

Often, villagers are forced to stand for hours in long queues around the well before, balancing the water jugs on their heads, they wearily make the return trek to their homes.

One 60-year-old village woman named Kannibal told the Indian Express recently: "We are dying of thirst. I cannot lift the pitcher any more."

Even those villagers lucky enough to have water do not know how long it will last, and quarrels often break out as one village tries to forcibly stop their neighbours from replenishing their pitchers.

For some Rajasthani villagers, a pitcher of water is not enough to survive. Farmers are watching their cattle die one by one from the drought.

But a camel cartload of water costs 60 rupees (pounds 1.20), far more money than a farmer's monthly earnings. To pay off the rates charged by the moneylenders, many farmers must hire themselves out as little better than slaves, according to some reports.

During the British colonial days, civil servants would decamp from New Delhi into the cool Himalayan foothills in summer. The advent of the air conditioner ended that pilgrimage, but now too many New Delhi-wallahs possess coolers, overloading the electricity supply.

Power blackouts are a thrice-daily occurrence, and the civil servants often sneak off into the hills anyway.

The late arrival of the monsoon rains is one reason for the heatwave.

On 6 June, a week behind schedule, the western monsoon finally swept off the ocean into the parched southern regions of India.

As it advances northwards, the landscape changes as if by magic, turning within hours from dead-brown to a shimmering array of greens.

So far, though, according to weather experts, it is still too early to tell whether this year's monsoon has the strength needed to break India's drought.

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