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Fitful sleep at the Ghat

While Delhiites are sympathetic to the homeless during winter, and often distribute blankets, the monsoon brings challenges the authorities don’t recognise

“Most of the people sleep in fear. Many a time we’re afraid of cars driving over the footpath,” says Rajkumar, 38, a construction worker.

Rajkumar is one of the many people who sleep on the footpaths every day because he does not have a home of their own and can’t bear the stifling heat in the night shelters. His night spot is located at Nigambodh Ghat on the bank of the Yamuna river, famous because of its old crematorium. All he requires every night is a plastic sheet and some footwear, so he can use it as a pillow.

The state of Nigambodh Ghat, located on the banks of Yamuna river coast in New Delhi, is daunting for a first-time visitor. With cases of dengue and malaria brimming every week, the apathy of the government could be observed when people started talking about the problems.

“Every morning, a huge line forms in front of the handpump,” says Rajkumar. He says sometimes people take a bath in the latrine only to save time and leave for work.

The place has four rain baseras, a government-supported night shelter where some of the people in Nigambodh ghat sleep. These shelters are only for males, and start filling up on first-come-first-serve-basis by 6 pm.

But, during the summer season, when Delhi’s blazing hot weather kicks in, these shelters are half empty as the people prefer sleeping out in the open on footpaths and the ground in the area.

Introduced by Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), Delhi has some 198 night shelters which are administered by various NGOs. While some are located in permanent buildings, some are in porta cabins.

As per the 2011 census, Delhi has 47,076 homeless people. While the government sticks to the census data, Sunil Kumar Aledia, founder member of Centre for Holistic Development, has put together other data which puts the figure of homeless people at 1,50,000. In a 2014 report prepared by him and the National Forum for Housing Rights, only 4,890 people get shelter at night. According to the report, only 3.2 per cent of the homeless have some shelter to resort to, whereas the rest are left on their own.

Many people Patriot spoke to talk about how these shelters become heat boxes in the summers, with water leakage a common problem during the rainy season.

While the people living in the Nigambodh Ghat area do get help during the winter, the situation drastically changes during summer. “Many people will come and give blankets to us in the winter, whereas in summer no one comes. The help suddenly stops in the beginning of March,” says another resident.

“The place gets extremely hot because of the tin roof and wall and mosquitos make the whole place a living mess,” says Sunny, 36, another person living in the Nigambodh Ghat area.

However, Sunny doesn’t speak frankly of the other problems of the place, which another person points out could be fear of repercussions from the authorities.

A source who requested not be named, says the whole area has been a witness to many deaths. Some of the deaths have been the result of people infected by dengue virus. He says there are some ragpickers too who died after falling in the gutter beside the Yamuna river bank in a drunken state.

The problems are exacerbated during the monsoon season. Though some people agree that some medical aid is provided by the local authorities, any measure to curb the breeding of mosquitos is nowhere to be seen.

Shahid (name changed), 28, says they start smoking ganja to be able to sleep comfortably on the footpath, since the loud noise of passing cars, pollution and heat become unbearable. “It gives them an escape and they don’t realise the severity of the situation,” added Shahid.

Shahid is associated with an NGO now. He himself used sleep in the shelter at Nigambodh Ghat, but doesn’t understand the logic behind building a tin box and naming it a shelter.

“I don’t understand why don’t they convert it into a solid building. The government should just build 2-3 storey buildings in order to accommodate more people,” says Shahid.

Currently, the shelters at the Nigambodh Ghat have an official capacity of 50, but the people say it rarely reached up to 30, because most of the people prefer sleeping roadside.

“You should come and see the situation at night. The whole stretch from Kashmere Gate bus stop to the rail bridge next to Red Fort gets filled up with people looking for a place to sleep,” says Shahid.
As dusk falls, people start occupying the many spots on the road. He says the situation is better for those who are drug addicts, because in their altered state they don’t feel any mosquito or mind the traffic noise.

Obviously, substance abuse is rife in the area. Some who became homeless as children slowly become addicts. Although they work in the daytime, but as the evening sets in, earnings of the whole day go into buying food and drugs.

“Some people only live to have drugs. Their purpose in life is to earn, eat and consume drugs. It’s what keeps them going,” says another onlooker.

Anil, another person who stays in the area, speaks about the fear of sleeping on the footpaths. He says, “There have been cases where a person’s hand or leg was on the road while in a sleepy state and a car ran over it.”

Although a lot of NGOs try to help the people, finally it is the responsibility of the administration to provide facilities. One of the persons living there says the government’s approach is to accommodate more and more people in the area, whereas their goal should be to help the people hone their skills to gain employment. “If they have good skills and a job, why would they still live here?” asks Prakash (name changed).

He says people have been living in the area without a home for 10 or more years, the situation doesn’t get better but only worse. He also says that some die here in the same condition as they came in, no improvement in their condition despite living in the Capital city.