Delhi: Worst winter

Print edition : January 25, 2013

People warming themselves around a fire in New Delhi on January 1. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Street dwellers in West Delhi on New Year's Day. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

EVERY December-January since 1997, the entire Indo-Gangetic plain has been witnessing a phenomenon that may be called global cooling. This year has been no different. One reason for this is the massive changes in the land use pattern. Another is the Green Revolution. Large, green, well-irrigated tracts of land have contributed to the moisture in the air, which forms fog and blocks sunlight from reaching the earth. As foggy conditions prevail, the cold wave conditions aggravate.

With the maximum temperatures plummeting to a record low and a thick pall of fog enveloping the entire plain, winter has been particularly harsh this year, especially on those who are homeless.

Even during the day, there has been no respite, owing to the lack of sun. Over a hundred people have lost their lives this winter owing to the extreme cold, with Uttar Pradesh recording the maximum number of deaths. The Met Office has predicted that similar weather conditions will prevail for some more time.

According to Dr R.K. Jenamani, Director, India Meteorological Department (IMD), the extreme winter this year is the result of persistent fog conditions since the beginning of December. The fog, which covered the entire Gangetic plain, has been hanging in the air since December 12, 2012. It has become particularly worse since December 23 as a stable atmosphere, which means no wind activity, either vertical or horizontal, has meant that the fog simply continues to stand still, blocking sunlight.

“What makes the winter this year particularly bad is the fact that the day temperature has seen the maximum drop. There is no respite as there has been no sunshine at all. This makes it tough for the homeless, which explains so many deaths,” he said. According to him, the foggy condition was first witnessed in 1997 and has continued since then.

“The presence of a high level of pollutants in the air and the changing land use pattern contribute to the fog forming conditions as they increase moisture in the atmosphere. Besides, large irrigated tracts of land and huge green expanses due to increased agricultural activity contribute to increasing the moisture in the air even if there has been no rain in the immediate past. And the absence of wind movement or the blowing of cold winds from the Himalyan ranges further aggravates the condition,” he says. The huge fog envelope, which stretched across a distance of 2,500 km from the east to the west, covered over 500-700 km of land tract from the north to the south, meaning almost the entire north, north-east and northwest of India was under this cold spell at varying times.

Thick foggy conditions, reducing visibility to nil at times, has thrown air and rail traffic out of gear even though the New Delhi airport claims to be having the required measures in place to deal with such situations.

The IMD says the extreme weather will continue for some more time, as satellite pictures have not indicated any change in wind activity. Interestingly, January 2, 2013, became the coldest day in 44 years with the day temperature at 9.8° Celsius and the minimum temperature at 4.8° C.

Despite government claims to the contrary, neither the Delhi government nor any other State government concerned is fully geared to provide shelter to the homeless. Delhi, for example, has only 150 night shelters, which can at best accommodate over 14,000 people.

But as studies done by some non-governmental organisations have found, the number of homeless in Delhi alone is 1.5 lakh (though some NGOs claim there are three lakh homeless).

No wonder hundreds die every winter. Between 2007 and 2011, a total of 6,861 people lost their lives because of the cold in Delhi alone. This has forced the Delhi High Court to direct the State government to provide more night shelters in the city.

The Delhi government, in typical bureaucratic style, has told the High Court that it is committed to providing one night shelter each for every lakh of population by 2021 as mandated by the Delhi Master Plan.

So much for the government’s sense of urgency.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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