Cold, huddled masses

Cold comfort Blankets are washed about twice a year, raising concern about hygiene. Photo: Amarjeet Singh
Cold comfort Blankets are washed about twice a year, raising concern about hygiene. Photo: Amarjeet Singh

It’s 10:30 pm and Farah is sitting in the biting cold, inconsolable.“I have already lost three children due to the cold. I don’t want the same fate now for my one-year-old daughter,” pleads Farah as she hovers around the night shelter in old Delhi’s Urdu Park area. She has just sat down to feed her daughter and will sleep on the pavement.

Why doesn’t she go inside? She says she was unceremoniously ousted from it for not succumbing to bullying by older women inside. She complains she was beaten up several times by these women when she refused to do the work they had arbitrarily assigned her. “They make me clean toilets, bring water, cook food,” she says. Farah has no recourse for her grievance and is scared of entering the shelter again.

At one of the night shelters in south Delhi’s Nehru Place, Sukhdev is just finishing his breakfast — roti and potatoes — the usual meal cooked by almost every other family living here. Faced with the growing space crunch inside the shelter, families huddle outside in small groups after somehow spending the night inside.

Sukhdev, who is in his 80s, leans against the tree outside the shelter having his food and wants better facilities to combat the harsh weather. He reckons there are more than 50 families living in just two portable cabins.

The shelter in south Delhi’s Nehru Place has two cabins — one for women and children and another for men. These cabins, made up of steel, have two windows each for ventilation and are equipped with fans. Shelters like these in the whole city are managed by NGOs under the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB).

For homeless people like Farah and Sukhdev, the night shelters built by the Delhi government are meant to provide succour from the cold. However, it is nowhere near providing a social security net to solve their myriad problems.

Farah was married for seven years before her husband abandoned the family. Since then she has been living on the pavement in Meena Bazaar, old Delhi. She tries to protect her one-year-old daughter from the winds while two of her children sleep inside the night shelter. “I am happy that my sons get at least one meal inside. Otherwise they too would have died due to the cold and starvation,” she says. Women like Farah prefer to stay outside rather than face the wrath of inmates.

Surender Khurana is the lone caretaker of the shelter in Nehru Place. He has been working here for two years and rarely visits his home in Kalkaji. He takes care of everything, from sanitation to security. His work starts from dawn and extends till late night. He cleans both the cabins, takes care of those who need assitance and provides security to more than 100 people seeking sheltering here. He also ushers all the single males into a separate cabin at night, for the security of women.

Although this winter has been mild, the Delhi government has to be ready to combat harsh conditions in case temperatures plunge to the usual low of 2 degrees Celsius. Accommodating homeless people in night shelters becomes an imperative for a welfare state.

In this regard, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal while inaugurating a new shelter at Geeta Ghat near Kashmiri Gate said, “We are committed to providing shelters to every homeless in the national capital. It will be shameful if any homeless person dies in the street.” Yet police records show 90 unidentified bodies were found during 1-13 January. This includes accident victims and those dying of malnutrition or illness.

People who otherwise live on pavements, under shop arches, footbridges and subways too look for a refuge in winter, leading to overcrowding.

DUSIB, in a public notice, has appealed to NGOs and other charitable organisations to come forward to rehabilitate such people. The government has also launched an app on which anyone can post pictures of homeless persons, which will enable the DUSIB to bring that person to the shelter.