Chilled to the bone, the homeless battle another winter

Photos: Soumik Mukherjee

With the Delhi chill getting harsher, the homeless have again been left out in the cold by the government. The pathetic condition of night shelters exposes the government’s apathy.

The Delhi government had contended in the Supreme Court that fewer night shelters were required this year because the number of homeless had decreased. The number of temporary night shelters has come down from 84 last year to just 19. The SC has now asked the Delhi government to construct the same number of shelters as last year with temperatures already going as low as 4 degrees Celsius. TEHELKA speaks to some ‘bravehearts’ who have been battling the deadly Delhi chill for years.

Gopalji Sharma

Gopalji Sharma is a typical septuagenarian having views on anything under the sun—from Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement to Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World controversy in England. But what makes the 73-year-old particularly remarkable is his homelessness.

In the narrow by-lanes of Old Delhi, tucked away outside public view is a night shelter at Fatehpuri Market, opposite the historic Red Fort. Sharma has spent the last 13 years at this night shelter keeping busy by vociferously reading everything he can lay his hands on. “In the morning, I head straight to the Marwari Library, opposite Haldiram’s store, and spend a better part of the day there.” He is immensely proud of his education, which makes him stand apart from the other 322 homeless persons with whom he shares the same damp, bug-infested mattress. “Not everyone can enter the library. It’s only for the well-read,” he says with pride.

With a degree in political science from Patna, Bihar—from where he hails— and teaching experience at a government school there, he comes across as a bit of oddity in the night shelter. “I had to leave home due to differences with my family over several issues. Finally, I landed up in Delhi in 1993,” he says rather loudly disturbing the sleep of others next to him. To avoid their curses, he starts narrating his experiences outside. “I was the caretaker here for many years before the place started taking care of me in my old age. But this is just one of the two places for the homeless in an area which has over 25,000 people living on streets,” he says.

Continuing with the midnight chat in fluent English, Sharma declares his love for the Bharatiya Janata Party. “Whatever one might say about the party, it knows how to take a tough stand on an issue.” Though he claims to be part of the mob that demolished the Babri mosque and regrets his act, Sharma says that Hindus are always portrayed as the oppressor. “Hasn’t enough blood been spilt on both sides? People are often annoyed by my views, but why shouldn’t I express my opinion in a free country?” He reflects for a while on what he has said before adding, “Violence is useless but we are trapped in an endless cycle.”

In many ways, Sharma helps shed light on the multitude of people with their opinions, history and problems which live in utter anonymity in the streets braving the harsh chill of Delhi.

Seema and Kavita

Numerous flyovers and overhead metro lines symbolise the rapid pace of Delhi’s development. While throngs of commuters hit one destination after another in jiffies as the metro passes by countless flyovers, they rarely notice the numerous homeless people living under the giant concrete manifestation of modernity. Seema (28) and her daughter Kavita (9) have been staying under one flyover or another for the last five years after her husband died in an accident.

“I used to work with my husband as daily wage labourers at construction sites and stay in tents until Kavita was born. But our lives changed after my husband died,” she says. Selling cell phone chargers at the traffic signal before the Bus Rapid Transport line going towards Saket is her livelihood. “Thankfully, we survive the winters as one good Samaritan or the other gives us warm clothes and a quilt.”

Kavita maintains a cheerful demeanour along with other homeless kids despite the hardships. “We often make up games to entertain ourselves. For example, when vehicles halt at the signal, we sometimes press our faces against the window panes to scare the occupants; it’s a lot of fun,” the excited nine-year-old says.

Kavita would like to stay in a night shelter. “It would be nice to stay in a night shelter, but I don’t know where to find them. Would it be safe for a woman and a child?” she asks. There are a few night shelters exclusively for women and children—Rang Shala Complex, Kabir Basti, Community Hall Ragarpura and Karol Bagh—but only with a capacity of around 50 each. “Even the streets are unsafe for us especially at night…. But we do not have much of an option. The biggest problem is lack of a proper bathing place,” explains Seema. She regrets having failed to provide better living conditions and education to her daughter. “When she was younger, I lived in perpetual fear during winters that she might die of cold… I used to clutch her.”

Babloo Kalita

“My rickshaw is my livelihood, home and bed,” says 31-year-old Babloo Kalita, who ferries passengers for Rs 10 through the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk. But freezing winters disrupt his schedule. “In summers, I work through the day and sleep at night. But in winters, I sleep on my rickshaw in the afternoon and work through the night because it’s too cold to sleep,” he says.

Originally from Assam, Kalita has been staying on the streets of Delhi for the last decade or so taking up odd jobs before buying a rickshaw, which is his only possession. “I had to leave my wife and two kids back home because some United Liberation Front of Asom cadres extorted whatever little money I had. What could I have done? I came to Delhi.”

Kalita stayed in a night shelter a few years ago when the cold was unbearable but found his rickshaw better. “It was too dirty. Besides, some occupants would often turn up drunk at night and harass others. With frequent quarrels and hundreds of people crammed into the shelter, it was very uncomfortable,” he says wishing the conditions were better.

Kalita spends his nights ferrying few passengers and later huddles around a bonfire sipping tea with the hundreds of others who share a similar fate. “Some shops remain open all night in winters only for people like us who need to stay warm. Sometimes, we buy a quarter of cheap rum,” he says with a smile. It is impossible for Kalita to afford a rented accommodation since he sends his meagre savings to his wife and children. “I am the sole provider for the family; I must fulfil my responsibility. But who is there to take care of me? Not the government it seems,” he says ironically. “Am I not their (the government’s) responsibility too?”

Vishwajoy Mukherjee is a Correspondent with Tehelka.


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