India swelters in heat wave so intense that birds die in trees; temperatures hit 124

By Omer Farooq, The Associated Press
Saturday May 18, 2002

HYDERABAD, India — India baked in a heat wave Friday so intense that mud huts became as hot as ovens and birds in trees dropped dead, villagers said. This month’s heat has killed 638 people nationwide. 

Officials described the temperatures exceeding 115 degrees as “a natural calamity.” 

In Andhra Pradesh state, 622 people died. Temperatures there reached a record 124 degrees, said D.C. Roshaiah, an official in charge of relief work in the state. 

Most of the dead were old people unable to bear the extreme heat, said Rajshekhar Murthy, a health worker in the state’s Guntur district, where 102 people died. 

P. Vijaylakshmi, a farmer in Kovvuru village in a remote corner of Andhra Pradesh, described the height of the heat wave last Friday as “the worst day of my life.” 

“How I can forget it? There was no place to hide. Even the dirt floor of my hut felt like an oven,” he said. 

Villagers said the heat was so intense that birds fell from the trees. 

Similar heat waves struck Andhra Pradesh in 1996 and 1998, but this year has been the worst, state weather officials said. Andrha Pradesh is the fifth-largest state in India, with 76 million people. 

Murthy, the health worker, said the number of dead would have been higher had local officials not issued warnings and supplied extra drinking water to the poor. 

“The administration sounded a warning a week in advance,” said Poonam Malkondaiah, an official in West Godavari district, where at least 50 people perished. 

“People were told not to venture out of their homes, especially around noon when the heat wave reaches its peak. If there were compelling reasons to go out, they were asked to cover themselves,” she said. 

It has been an abnormally hot May in southern India. Temperatures have been 7 percent above the monthly average. 

The national capital New Delhi and other parts of northern India have also been sweltering. Sixteen people died in the desert state of Rajasthan as temperatures climbed to 117 on Friday. 

Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu set up a scientific committee to establish whether global warming was causing the heat wave. 

However, meteorologists quickly blamed scorching desert winds from the northwest, not the greenhouse effect or deforestation. 

“Heat waves always precede the monsoon rains. They induce the moisture to come in,” said R. Rajamani, an environmental expert based in Hyderabad. Monsoons normally arrive in southern India in early June, and in the rest of the country over subsequent weeks.