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Back alley with little hope

Lutyens Delhi has a shanty town right behind Rahul Gandhi’s residence. What do those living in such deplorable conditions keep in mind when casting their votes?

There is a cluster of 250 shanties called JJ Tughlak Lane Camp just behind Rahul Gandhi’s bungalow, 12 Tughlak Lane. Actually, it is situated in the lane that separates the bungalows on Tughlak Lane and Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road (earlier known as Aurangzeb Road). Even though the name of the adjacent road was changed, the living conditions of its inhabitants have remained deplorable for the last three decades.

There are two rows of shanties facing each other, with walls made of hardboard and tarpaulin sheets acting as the only demarcation where Brahmins, Yadavs, Valmikis and Muslims reside.  With asbestos sheets for roofs and wooden planks for doors, these shanties are no different from the clusters in many other parts of the city.

Each family huddles into an 8×8 ft shanty, where they also cook and sleep on the floor together in the oppressive heat. Some more innovative people have a high wooden cot that is nearly the size of the room. The married couple sleeps underneath the bed for some privacy, while the rest of the family occupies the top of the bed. Some, who are a little more fortunate than the rest, also have washing machines.

At the end of the two rows of shanties are six community toilets covered with green tiles. Thankfully, there are separate toilets for women. In the last five years, toilets have been built, demolished and rebuilt as different governments have come to power. This is what politicians do to express their solidarity with them. Initially, Arvind Kejriwal got the toilets built and later on the initiative of Priyanka Gandhi — the new set of toilets were built after demolishing the old.

Ram Kishan Vasora, Pradhan of the camp for the last five years, is sitting on a cot under the shade of a neem tree, in front of these green toilets, on the recently built cement road that leads to the camp. A tall, lanky fellow, in his late 50s, he has been living here since the very beginning. “I have spent my whole life here,” he says as he narrates how they all started living in these shanties.

Initially, some construction labourers pitched tents and stayed here. After the construction was over, most of the labourers left, except for five families. With time their number grew and in 1990, NDMC gave them the status of a ‘JJ Camp’. They were given electricity constructions.

In the last 30 years, they have grown to become a cluster of 250 shanties, where 1,000 voters live. They have their own grocery shops. A Mohalla Clinic was also proposed to be set up here, but it never materialised. A nearby dispensary, which was started by NDMC, is shut now.

Vasora is fond of Priyanka Gandhi, who recently ventured into politics. Around 15 days ago, when she had come to this area for election campaigning, she listened to their woes and promised to help. Vasora laments that politicians only come during the elections.

The incumbent MP from New Delhi—Meenakshi Lekhi—never visited them after she got elected. The new BJP candidate, Gautam Gambhir, is yet to arrive. Arvind Kejriwal has been here twice. Rahul Gandhi used to visit these shanties often, but ever since he became the Congress president, he has not made a round of this area. “Now, he’s a very busy man, we know,” says Vasora.

Vasora is a supporter  of the Congress. And there are some elders, who would prefer BJP. But the younger lot of this camp  appear to be more inclined towards AAP. In fact, in the last Assembly elections, there was a generational divide, while the older folks voted for the BJP, the below-25 group, accounting for half of the population, voted for Kejriwal. “That divide is still there, but not as strong as it used to be,” says Vasora.

Umesh, a 40-year-old daily wage labourer, lives with his wife and three sons in a shanty. He sleeps with his wife under the wooden cot, while the three boys sleep on top. He supports the BJP, while three of his sons are AAP supporters. One of them is an autorickshaw driver.

Their 17-year-old son, Raju, who is the youngest ,strongly supports Kejriwal. “I can understand what Kejriwal says, others are nautankibaaz (dramatists),” he says. Vishal, 19, is not forthright in expressing his party preference for the ongoing elections. “I have not made up my mind, but I will not vote for Modi. This is what I’m sure about,” he says in Hindi. On being asked the reason for this, he casually says, “Mera mann (It is my wish).”

This cluster of shanties is an island of deprivation in the ocean of affluence. The richest of rich, the powerful politicians, bureaucrats and judges reside in the area, while they have been living in sub-human conditions. Many of the residents have moved out to live in apartments, but they still have not given up their claim on the shanties here. Half of these shanties have been given out on rent to drivers, hotel staff and private security guards. They pay Rs 2,500 a month to live in a shanty that’s slightly bigger than a grave.

“It’s an open grave,” laments Chatterpal, 60, who is one of the five original inhabitants of the camp. He has five children, and his grandchildren live in a pigeon-hole sized shanty. They all sleep on the floor, boys sometimes go out to sleep under the tree, or by the road, but cops won’t let them — after all it’s a high security area.  “I haven’t slept well for years. My back aches because I have to sleep while sitting,” he says. His sentiments are shared by many of the residents. They say politicians shouldn’t just surface before the elections to seek votes but should do something about their deplorable conditions. Perhaps, shift them out of Lutyens Delhi and provide them shelter.

The permanent residents are unhappy with those who reside here on rent. They are mostly younger people, migrant labours. “They come back late in the night, mostly inebriated. Inside their shanties they feel hot, and can’t get sleep, so they come out to create ruckus, even indulge in theft,” says Kamala, while washing a huge pile of clothes by the green bathroom.

The most prized possession is a mobile. Some half a dozen of them were stolen in the last few weeks. They suspect some boys who are living here on rent. It’s election season again, as the dry leaves fly in the warm breeze. Politicians will descend on their camp for votes. This time they will be judicious. “We will demand a better life in return for votes,” says Kamala. Priyanka Gandhi has already promised that. “Her PA has told us that she will take up our cause after the elections. Currently, she’s very busy,” narrates Vasora.