New Delhi: In early January, a call was made from Delhi's Jhandewalan Night Shelter. The request for urgent help and blankets came from a sick man struggling to keep warm in the biting cold.

"By the time an ambulance reached the spot, the man had passed away," recounts Sunil Aledia of the Centre for Holistic Development (CHD), who has worked with Delhi's homeless population for decades. He fears this man, like most of the city's homeless, will end up as an unidentified name and number in the country's list of cold wave deaths.

Cold to severe cold wave conditions had gripped several parts of Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand in January, with red alerts issued by the India Meteorological Department (IMD). Delhi reportedly had the highest number of cold wave days in January in at least a decade.

At least 98 people reportedly died in Kanpur because of heart and brain strokes triggered by the cold between January 4 and January 9, 2023. In India, the annual deaths linked with abnormal cold temperatures is 655,400, while the fatality associated with high temperatures is 83,700, according to a 2021 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal.

North India and the Indo-Gangetic belt have similar weather patterns, said Anjal Prakash of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, a think tank working with the United Nations on climate change modelling. "It's extremely harsh on the older population, especially people with comorbidities, and the homeless, those living in slums and lower socio-economic rungs." The National Guidelines for Cold Wave Management 2021, published by NDMA, also acknowledges that the urban poor and migrant labourers who are homeless, and within that group, the subgroups of elderly, children and drug addicts are especially vulnerable.

Prakash pointed out how air pollution and smog added to the toxicity of the region's climate, as AQI limits for the past three months remained poor. Cold wave days lead to increased energy consumption and emission of pollutants, explained Prakash. In addition, cold temperatures make it harder to maintain one's internal body temperature, leading to health problems such as hypothermia, frostbite and respiratory issues, he added.

"The number of deaths caused by extreme weather events in India is grossly underestimated and the government barely admits to it. The police tend to not record these incidents as cold wave deaths on paper," Aledia stated. His organisation, in a letter to Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, claimed at least 106 people had died due to the cold in Delhi between January 1 and January 19, 2023.

In addition, there is discrepancy in numbers quoted by different data sources

The EnviStats report by the Ministry of Statistics And Programme Implementation shows a lower number of cold wave deaths when compared to Lok Sabha data based on the National Crime Records Bureau's Accidental Deaths And Suicides report. The Lok Sabha annexure provided this data in response to a question requesting the "number of people who died due to cold weather and cold waves across the country during the last five years including 2020-21, state-wise."

For instance, while the EnviStats report cites 18 deaths in 2015, as per the NCRB, 1,149 people lost their lives in 2015, and it is recorded as the year with the highest number of deaths due to cold waves.

We have reached out to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation and the Ministry of Home Affairs, via phone and email, to understand the reasons behind the discrepancy in the data. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Climate activists, including Prakash, flag how the limits to human adaptation, that is, the population's ability to cope with such extreme weather, have already been breached. "This is going to be the new normal, not only in winters, but all other seasons. The intensity of rainfalls will increase. Summers will be harsher. Variability in climate will be the order of the day."

This year was also the hottest February the Indian subcontinent has witnessed in the last fifty years, said Abinash Mohanty, a climate change expert and Sector Head of Climate Change and Sustainability at IPE Global, an international development organisation. Describing it as an anomaly, exacerbated by climate change, he said more heat wave days are likely as it is predicted to be an El Nino year. He also warns of a summer extending across July, August till late September and October, across the northern and south-western belt of India.

To mitigate heat waves, in the long term, India needs "restoration of natural-landscape infrastructure including mangroves, forest cover, wetlands, ponds and lakes," said Mohanty.

With mortality rates associated with extreme weather events expected to increase in the coming years, experts assert the need to identify vulnerable populations and areas.

"Hypergranular risk assessments should study the climate readiness of our communities with a solution-centric approach. Crucial access to climate information needs to be democratised, made more palatable and have less jargon to provide impact-based information," such that people can act on. For instance, he said, a manufacturing industry may need to change their working hours from dawn to noon to avert peak sunlight hours exposure and provide sustainable cooling access in facilities for employees.

The NDMA guidelines for states to combat the impact of cold waves list mitigation measures, including developing a detailed treatment protocol, setting up day and night shelters at strategic locations, medical facilities, supplies of necessities and implementing standard treatment protocol for all levels of cold-related illnesses. "The government should prepare a national Winter Action Plan, advisories, relief and standard operating procedures way ahead of seasons," said Aledia.

Aledia says, "the people losing their lives to these cold waves are assets of the economy. These are preventable deaths that should not simply be reduced to a statistic."

We have reached out via email to the National Disaster Management Authority and to the Relief and Disaster Management Departments of Delhi, UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Punjab for comment on implementing the NDMA's guidelines for mitigating risks of extreme temperatures. We will update the story when we receive a response.

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