NEW DELHI — A brutal cold wave has swept northern India, blanketing streets in freezing fog, intensifying pollution, disrupting hundreds of flights and prompting school closures.
India’s capital, New Delhi, experienced its coldest day in 119 years on Monday, with the maximum temperature dipping below 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9.4 Celsius), about 20 degrees below the average for December. Last week, the city broke its longest cold spell in more than two decades, with 10 consecutive days of extreme weather.
Northern India, with its expanses of farmland and desert, is more accustomed to heat waves than dangerous cold fronts, both of which have been linked to climate change.
Centralized heating is rare in the region, and many ill-prepared residents rushed to buy warm clothing as nighttime temperatures hovered around freezing and schools near New Delhi were closed. Over the weekend, patients with pneumonia flooded hospitals, and many adults have complained of near-constant coughs and colds.
In New Delhi and neighboring states, slowing winds have made air pollution worse, India’s meteorological department said. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, pollution levels in the capital soared to levels more than 20 times what the World Health Organization considers safe.
The fog is often so blinding that drivers cannot see cars slowing down in front of them, causing accidents and highway pileups. In December, hundreds of flights and trains were delayed or canceled because of low visibility.
Last week, six people were killed in the city of Noida, near New Delhi, after their car skidded off the road. Investigators blamed heavy fog.
In neighboring Bangladesh, a prolonged cold spell that started in November has left at least 50 people dead, including 17 children, according to Ayesha Akhter, a medical officer in Dhaka, the capital.
Most of these deaths were caused by respiratory infections, pulmonary disease or pneumonia, health officials said.
“Dense fog is the main cause for the cold,” said R.K. Jenamani, a meteorologist with the national weather forecasting center. He attributed the weather’s severity to storms in the Mediterranean that have caused sudden winter rain in northern India, a phenomenon known as a “western disturbance.”
Retailers are struggling to keep up. Ramesh Gupta, a shopkeeper in New Delhi who works at one of India’s biggest electrical wholesalers’ markets, said that most branded heating appliances had sold out and that prices for basic heaters had doubled in the last week, to about $19 from $10.
Vivek Sharma, who sells woolen clothing in South Delhi, said he kept shuttling between his small shop and the warehouses where he replenishes his inventory. Even those places were running low, he said.
“I have never seen such demand for warm clothes,” Mr. Sharma said as a customer picked through knitted sweaters. “After an hour, nothing will be left.”
The homeless, of course, are especially vulnerable. In New Delhi, the government runs 221 winter shelters that can accommodate nearly 10,000 people. But they are sometimes poorly maintained or ineffectively guarded.
In the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where thousands sleep on roadside pavements, Yogi Adityanath, the state’s chief minister, distributed blankets to homeless people at a shelter. Soon after he left, Indian news outlets reported that outsiders had tried to steal the blankets, prompting a police investigation.
On Tuesday, frigid winds blew a hole in the side of a night shelter in Chandni Chowk, a lower-income part of New Delhi. The 50 or so people sleeping inside started to shiver and drew closer to each other.
“In such biting cold, it is not possible to sleep without a roof,” said Manmohan Singh, a laborer who earns less than $10 a day and sometimes sleeps in the shelter.
Outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, a large hospital in New Delhi that offers free treatment to the country’s poorest, hundreds of patients sprawled out on sidewalks, covering themselves with quilts for a night in the cold.
“I have no other option,” said Sarveshwar Pandey, a farmer in a wool cap, who had traveled hundreds of miles from Bihar for knee treatment and slept outside on Tuesday.
Kai Schultz contributed reporting.