Image: Indians wrapped in blankets
Rajesh Kumar Singh  /  AP
Indian Hindu devotees cover themselves to protect from the cold as they arrive at a bank of the Ganges River in Allahabad on Wednesday. Thousands of Hindu devotees plan to take holy dips at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers during a month-long Hindu festival that began Thursday.
updated 12/31/2009 12:07:09 PM ET 2009-12-31T17:07:09

Near-freezing weather has killed at least 16 homeless people in northern India despite government efforts to distribute blankets and firewood to the poor, police said Thursday.

Fearing more deaths, the chief medical officer of Uttar Pradesh, A.K. Shukla, asked children and older people to stay at home as overnight temperatures were likely to fall further over the weekend.

The temperature dipped below 35 degrees F in parts of Uttar Pradesh state this week.

Authorities began distributing blankets and firewood to the homeless this week, said Atul Kumar Gupta, the state chief secretary.

"Sixteen people have died of cold since midnight Tuesday," Surendra Srivastava, a police spokesman, told The Associated Press.

Winters are generally short and mild in South Asia but beggars and impoverished migrant workers are exposed because they sleep in the open, with only plastic sheets or cloth sacks for cover, Srivastava said.

Last winter, the state reported 151 cold-related deaths.

Uttar Pradesh is one of India's poorest states and nearly a fifth of its 180 million people are homeless, according to state government statistics.

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