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For one night last week, the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, slept on a pavement. That same night, Outlook set out to chronicle the life of the homeless in the city where every year many die of the cold. It had rained and the night was damp and windy, the fog not so dense. Leading the way was Indu Prakash Singh of the Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath (SAM:BKS) who has worked with the homeless since 1999.
This year, he says, he personally knows of 17 homeless people who died in Delhi between January 1 and 22, but the figure could be upwards of 100. He explains the Crime Records Bureau figures for the same period show 394 unidentified dead bodies—many of them are homeless who just die off quietly in some corner, with no one to ask after them.
Last year, 11,000 Delhiites got voter ID cards which gave their address as “homeless”. Indu and other activists worked for three years to make this possible. This year they are hopeful of an even more dramatic approach to the problem of those without a home in a megapolis. On December 29, the day after Kejriwal was sworn in, Indu got a call from Manish Sisodia who also has charge of the urban development ministry in the Delhi government. Sisodia was saying that something had to be done for the homeless.
Then on the first morning of the new year, Kejriwal himself called and said “we have to do something quickly”. That afternoon Indu met Kejriwal and his colleagues at the Delhi Secretariat. Lots of plans were talked about, such as “immediately” setting up Portacabin shelters. One of the AAP ministers present asked, “We are not occupying the ministerial bungalows, why not house some of the homeless in them?”
Kejriwal would later give orders that Indu describes as simply “radical”. The new shelters should come up in the places where people sleep on pavements. The people must not be pushed out to other places by the police and administration, something that happened all the time during the reign of the Sheila Dikshit government.
But then nothing moves quickly in government, the AAP novices had to learn. As January draws to a close, the Portacabin shelters are still to be delivered. Still, in the first two weeks of the year, 50 extra plastic sheet shelters have come up across the city.
One of the more innovative ideas of the AAP regime was to use abandoned buses as shelters. Seven such buses were picked up by cranes and delivered to specific spots. Four stand outside the aiims hospital now, where patients and families look for any spot to curl up on cold nights. At 1.30 am, on January 21, when the Outlook team reached, the buses were packed with sleeping people.
At the heart of the concern for the city’s most unfortunate ones is Kejriwal’s own past as an activist. He has engaged with the issue of homelessness since 2000, has in fact even trained people on how to use RTI to get them their rights. Advocate and AAP core committee member Prashant Bhushan has been the lawyer in several significant cases dealing with this issue.
One can only speculate whether this sort of engagement also shapes Kejriwal’s attitude to the policemen on Delhi’s streets. For certainly it is the homeless and the urban poor in the slums who face the brunt of the anarchy of constant police harassment. For them, this is no orderly world.
Pooja’s two kids, five and six, live in a government home. She is allowed to visit them, on the month’s first Saturday.
In central Delhi, opposite the state emporias in Connaught Place, a small community of pavement dwellers has been living for years. Dalits from Sholapur in Maharashtra, the gravest issue facing them is the violence by the police. Radha was born on that pavement. She now has fully grown children who are routinely rounded up by the cops. Sure, the community of about 180 people has some who are small-time drug peddlers. But that’s hardly reason for the lot of them to be harassed thus. A little probing also reveals that most often the source of the drug supply is the police themselves, who later come around to thrash the ‘addicts’.
Across the road, under a tree near the Hanuman mandir lives Pooja Sharma with her mother and brother. She is 23 now, but was married off at 14 in Agra. Her husband died, and she now survives under a plastic sheet near a busy Delhi road. Her two sons, five and six, live in a government halfway home. She is allowed to visit them on the first Saturday of every month. She eats food at the mandir, sells flowers, and pays Rs 10 to bathe in a public toilet some distance away.
But she is full of spunk and has become an outreach worker for the homeless (she’s given a supply of blankets to distribute among those who land up without one). She says she does not like living in shelters as people fight there and claim spaces. That said, she yearns for a home somewhere, anywhere.
Indeed, many families on the streets prefer the outdoors to shelters. It is only the daily-wage workers who want a covered spot after a hard day’s work. Karol Bagh is one of the industrial hubs of Delhi with small factories making jeans, garments and machine parts. Dev Nagar, near Liberty cinema, is a dwelling of the homeless workers. Many are rickshaw pullers from Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, staying without their families.
There is a small tin shelter in Dev Nagar, but many are forced to sleep out in the open on the rickshaws. In the last two weeks, two plastic shelters were put up. Hemlata Kansotia, a social worker, who checks in on Dev Nagar once a day, points out how plastic is no protection against rain on winter nights. The sheets dip under the weight of water, the dhuree on rough stones is soaked. Portable toilets too have been provided but they are still to be connected to sewage lines. Since they can’t sleep on the wet floor, the inmates are told to bring their rickshaws into the shelter and sleep on them.
Near the Yamuna river, there is a row of shelters but they get packed so quick many sleep out in the open or under the flyovers. We counted 172 people under one near ISBT. Six people died in the past week at this very same spot. Many here are ragpickers, surviving on the edges.
Many of the shelters in the capital come under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). It has a CEO named Aman Nath, who had assured the high court on December 10 that no homeless would die in the city. After six died on one night, Indu sought criminal action against Aman Nath and sent an SMS to Kejriwal. He got a reply from the CM, which said they are looking for good officers in the bureaucracy.
Not far from the Yamuna river, there is a shelter run by Child Watch India, whose caretaker Nishu Tripathi says that Aman Nath visited and said that “people sleep out in the open only so that they can collect blankets”. He says the bureaucrats are just plain callous and don’t care if people live or die. Meanwhile, the clouds suddenly clear up. The moonlight reveals a row of bodies shivering under blankets on the banks of the Yamuna with only the sky over their heads.
By Saba Naqvi
Photographs: Narendra Bisht