Thursday, December 8

India’s homeless shiver through New Delhi’s cold snap as dozens die of exposure | India

India’s capital New Delhi is shivering from an unusually harsh winter cold, blamed for the deaths of dozens of homeless people and leaving other struggling residents struggling to keep warm.

The sprawling city’s 20 million residents are accustomed to extreme weather conditions year-round, from scorching summer heat to torrential downpours and thick, toxic smog in late fall.

Still, this month’s bracing cold and blustery rains have been an ordeal for many, with Delhi on Tuesday recording its coldest January day in nearly a decade.

“There’s no denying it’s very cold,” Mukesh, 30, said from his bed at a homeless shelter over the weekend.

He and a small group of shelter residents had huddled around a makeshift wood fire, a scene repeated on city sidewalks every night this month.

“The last 10 days have been very cold and especially last week there was not much sunshine,” Mukesh said. “We have been worried because we have to work very hard to keep warm.”

A man at a government-run homeless shelter in New Delhi in the winter cold.
A man at a government-run homeless shelter in New Delhi in the winter cold. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Recent figures on homelessness in Delhi are hard to come by, but according to the 2011 India Census, roughly 47,000 of the city’s residents slept rough.

Activists, however, say that’s a gross understatement. Official figures show the city’s homeless shelters can only hold around 9,300 people.

Sunil Kumar Aledia of the Center for Holistic Development, who has worked with Delhi’s homeless population for decades, said the city has recorded some 176 deaths from exposure to cold so far this year.

“Because of these extreme temperatures, many people on the streets are dying,” he said.

India’s weather bureau has told local media that Delhi’s daily high temperatures have been two to six degrees Celsius below normal for most of January.

On Tuesday, only 54 Fahrenheit (12.1 °C) was recorded, the lowest January high since 2013 and 10 degrees below the long-term average for the month.

People gather around a campfire to stay alert outside a house in DelhiPeople gather around a campfire to keep warm outside a homeless shelter in Delhi
People gather around a fire to keep warm outside a homeless shelter in Delhi. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

The lows have been in the single digits for much of the past few weeks.

“This situation is not normal,” said Anjal Prakash of the Bharti Institute for Public Policy, a think tank that has worked with the United Nations on climate change modelling.

Extreme weather events “are going to be much more frequent and so is the severity of these events. [rise] in the future,” he said.

The humans of Delhi are not the only ones suffering from the cold snap. The city’s stray dogs often congregate around the markets, and when the cold arrives each year, many are given special jackets and hot food to help them withstand the weather.

“This year, we feel the cold much more, both me and my dogs,” said Raju Kashyap, who runs an open-air tea shop and takes care of some of the area’s stray dogs.

“But I had to leave the house and take care of my post… I have to come and stand here to feed them because they depend on me.”

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