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Indians seek relief as heat wave death toll passes 1,400

WATCH: Soaring summer temperatures in India have left over 1,100 people dead over the past month, officials said on Wednesday. Most of the deaths have been reported in the southeastern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana.

HYDERABAD, India – Eating onions, lying in the shade and crowding into rivers, Indians were doing whatever they could Thursday to stay cool amid a brutal heat wave that has killed more than 1,400 in the past month.

Meteorological officials said the heat would likely continue for several more days – warping asphalt roads, scorching crops and endangering anyone labouring outdoors.

Officials warned people to stay out of the sun, cover their heads and drink plenty of water, but India’s widespread poverty was forcing many to work despite the high temperatures.

“Either we have to work, putting our lives under threat, or we go without food,” farmer Narasimha said in the badly hit Nalgonda district of southern Andhra Pradesh state. “But we stop work when it becomes unbearable.”

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In the city of Nizamabad, 150 kilometres (93 miles) north of the state capital of Hyderabad, construction workers were also still on the job.

“If I don’t work due to the heat, how will my family survive?” said Mahalakshmi, who earns a daily wage of about $3.10.

Most of the 1,412 heat-related deaths so far have occurred in Andhra Pradesh and neighbouring Telangana, where temperatures have soared up to 47 degrees Celsius (117 degrees Fahrenheit), according to government figures.

Among the most vulnerable were the elderly and the poor, many of whom live in slums or farm huts with no access to air conditioners or sometimes even shady trees.

Those who were able were heeding the government’s advice to avoid the outdoors.

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“With so many people dying due to the heat, we are locking the children inside,” teacher Satyamurthy said in Khammam, which registered its highest temperature in 67 years on Saturday when the thermometer hit 48 degrees Celsius (more than 118 Fahrenheit).

Cooling monsoon rains were expected to arrive next week in the southern state of Kerala and gradually work their way northward in coming weeks.

Until then, volunteers were passing out pouches of salted buttermilk or raw onions – both thought to be hydrating. People used handkerchiefs and scarves to block searing winds and stifling air from their faces.

In cities like New Delhi, crowds of office workers gathered around stalls selling fruit drinks and iced water, while Sikhs in the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana distributed free glasses of rose-scented milk.

Across the country, teenagers flocked to water basins and rivers to cool off. Many adults took refuge atop woven cots in the shade.

Forecasting service AccuWeather described this as the most intense heat wave in India in recent years. The death toll for Andhra Pradesh alone, at 1,360, was higher than during a 2003 heat wave when 1,300 died in what was then a unified state including both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

Doctors were on alert for heat-related illness like sun stroke, and were telling people venturing outdoors to cover their heads and wear light, loose clothing, said health officer Sarojini in the city of Vishakapatnam who goes by one name, as is common in the region.

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Telangana’s school board postponed the start date for colleges for a week from Monday. The state also opened centres where cold water was being served, and changed the working hours for rural employment schemes, disaster management official Sada Bhargavi said.

One Hyderabad man was doing his newspaper delivery route at dawn to avoid peak temperatures. “It is difficult to do this work in this harsh weather, but I have a family to take care of,” said Rajaiah, who goes by one name.

Otherwise, Hyderabad’s normally jam-packed streets were almost deserted Thursday, as market vendors and office workers avoided going out.

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