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Delhi — where most people don't have AC — hits 120 degrees in South Asian heat wave


South Asia is suffering a heat wave. Temperatures in New Delhi hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit this week. NPR's Lauren Frayer sent us this postcard about how people are coping in a country where most do not have air conditioning.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: I'm surrounded by, like, 40 guys with bicycle rickshaws, and they're vying for business here in 120-degree heat. It looks like it's just excruciatingly hard work to not only be out here but to pedal the weight of other people through this.

SANDEEP MANOHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "The hot wind burns my face," says rickshaw-wallah Sandeep Manohar. He carries a few passengers at a time for less than a dollar.

This is Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest, busiest and most densely packed areas of the Indian capital, where only a precious few have air conditioning.

RAKSHA KUMAR, BYLINE: You see the plastic sheets?

FRAYER: Oh, yeah.

KUMAR: They have the AC on, and then they kind of block the cold air inside.

FRAYER: Oh, so they have an AC in there.

KUMAR: They do. They have it on. You see that?

FRAYER: My colleague Raksha Kumar points out an electronics shop - it's really more of an alcove in an open-air market - where they've hung plastic sheeting around a roughly 6-foot-square area with two air conditioners inside. Maybe not so energy efficient, but it's a tiny refuge from the furnace outside.

OK. So here's a restaurant, and there's actually an open flame here and some, like, hot oil. It feels really hot just to get close. Hello.

KUSUM JAIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Kusum Jain's family has been deep-frying spicy snacks at this little dhaba - or food stall - since the 1940s.

JAIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: A few years ago, they installed two huge fans at the entrance to blow hot air out of the restaurant and into the street, where people are packed shoulder to shoulder sweating. A police megaphone blasts a warning about overcrowding.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: I've just stepped out of the road into a doctor's office. In the waiting room, there's a giant appliance much bigger than a washer/dryer. This is the key appliance to keeping cool.

JAIDEEP ROHATGI: It's a water cooler.

FRAYER: Dr. Jaideep Rohatgi explains that it's basically a fan in a box filled with wet straw - much cheaper than AC but not nearly as effective. It blows damp, cool air out into his waiting room, which is filling with patients suffering from heatstroke.

ROHATGI: People with dehydration, fever, vomiting.

FRAYER: From the heat.

ROHATGI: Yeah. Fainting, people fainting.

FRAYER: This is only going to get worse. Scientists say climate change makes heat waves like this a hundred times more likely. Now, this crowded neighborhood is ground zero for the heat, but it's also ground zero for something called jugaad - a local word for ingenious low-tech solutions.

This narrow gully is lined with colorful 20-liter tanks that are being delivered to all these shops. And there's a delivery guy named Sanjay. And actually these tanks say Sanjay carved on them.

MOHAMMED ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Mohammed Ali is one of his customers. He explains how this guy named Sanjay - nobody seems to know his surname - manages to purify and chill thousands of liters of drinking water every day and distribute them in a wheelbarrow down narrow market passageways. It's a special seasonal summertime service for 25 rupees - about $0.30.

ALI: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: But Mohammed laughs. He says, you've got to savor the cold water quickly before it heats up just like everything else here.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Chandni Chowk, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.