The road is the abode

- November 5, 2022
| By : Ali Fraz Rezvi |

Delhi’s streets are home to a population of more than 2 lakh homeless people in India, according to a recent report by the Housing and Land Rights Network. Patriot brings to you an insight into the life of the city’s floating population

Highways and metro stations serve as roof for many homeless people

As the azaan echoes from the loudspeakers in the old Delhi area, Sarfaraz Alam, 28, wakes up at the Delhi Gate Metro Station and rushes to a tea stall right next to a mosque at Daryaganj. Within 4-5 minutes, he folds his thin mattress and keeps it in a corner at the Metro Station’s Gate No. 3. He’ll come around 11 pm in the night to retrieve his belonging.

“When I was growing up in Moradabad, Delhi was always termed as a city of those who chase their dreams,” Sarfaraz tells Patriot.

“I too arrived in this city with a dream to chase. The dream of living an affluent life, which I am still chasing seven years later. I came to this city with three friends and a few thousand rupees. We rented a small room in Wazirabad and started looking for work. I got a job at a nearby hotel and kept working there till the pandemic struck.”

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The hotel was closed during the duration of the pandemic. With no other option to sustain himself, Sarfaraz returned to Moradabad. “I had healthy savings, but the continuous unemployment and the death of my parents left me in dire straits. Again, with a few hundred rupees, I returned to Delhi and found a job at a tea stall, and then at a nearby hotel. But, I don’t think that my situation is going to change any time soon,” he adds.

“I am in a lot of debt and I can’t afford to pay rent at this juncture. I believe that there are better days ahead, but until then, this sky is all the shelter I have,” he also says.

LONESOME BATTLE: A homeless person sleeps under the shed of a tree

Riot victim

It isn’t just the pandemic that left people on the streets. Sarfaraz tells Patriot about a person from his hometown who too is forced to live on the city’s streets.

On a footpath in North East Delhi’s Timarpur lives 48-year-old Ubaid Ansari (name changed), with just a suitcase and a small handbag. “This is the sum total of my belongings,” states Ansari.

He is one of the hundreds of people who lost their homes, jobs and livelihood because of the Delhi riots of 2020. “I had a small hut on the outskirts of Maujpur, which was set ablaze by the rioters along with the other huts in the area. I was all alone, my wife and my daughters were back in Moradabad and they didn’t have an idea of what was going on in Delhi. I somehow managed to get out of the burning hut with a bag and ran out of the area without a second thought,” he added.

“The memory of that night still haunts me.”

“I work as a contractual labour and don’t earn enough to rent a house. In fact, I don’t have the courage to live in a house once again. I feel safe under the bright sky, rather than in a cloistered space,” he says.

He has a daughter of marriageable age and whatever he earns, he saves it for her marriage. “I have seen a lot of harsh days and nights, so a few more won’t hurt me. After all, I have a place in my native town Moradabad to call home. There are a lot of other people living on the same street in similar situations. We are all a family, we stand together in the moment of need,” adds Ansari.

“We might be homeless, but we aren’t heartless,” he concludes.

SCARY NIGHTS: Many homeless people spend their nights on the pavements of the roads

So-called shelters

When Patriot approached a senior official at the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) regarding the increasing population of homeless people in the National Capital Territory, the department informed that it runs around 210 permanent shelter homes in Delhi.

“As winter approaches, we are planning to create temporary shelter homes as we created in the past years,” states an official. He adds that Delhi has a fluid homeless population, and it is impossible to accommodate everybody in the shelter homes. However, the official preferred not to answer when asked if he accepts this as a failure of the Delhi Government.

The MCD, on the other hand, attacks DUSIB and the Delhi Government for their failure in taking full responsibility for providing accommodation to the homeless population in state-run shelter homes.

Without disclosing his name, an MCD official informs Patriot that the Delhi government has leased the management of these shelter homes in the hands of several non-profit organisations. He also points out that one such NGO recently stopped food distribution at some shelter homes, citing financial issues.

“If the government is not able to feed a small proportion of Delhi’s homeless population, how is it going to solve the problem of homelessness in Delhi?” asked the official.

Speaking about the role of MCD, he states that the municipal authorities are trying their best to do whatever they can in this regard. He continues to divert the conversation towards the incapacity of the Delhi Government rather than giving concrete answers about arrangements made by his own department.

Fate’s victims

In an uninhabited land near Jamia Millia Islamia metro station, a number of families reside in harsh conditions. Many earn their livelihood by begging, but the younger generation is going to school and taking up labour jobs.

When Patriot visited the place, women were skinning the offal bought from a butcher’s shop at a cheap price for lunch. A number of young men played cards nearby amid smoke from the chulahs.

“We have been living here since our childhood,” says Ubaid, a 22-year-old man who works as a cobbler. His family comes from a village near Lucknow and he says that almost every family in his part of the area comes from Uttar Pradesh.

“A lot of people like you come to this place. Just a few days ago, there were people from Jamia who wanted to ask how we live. They took our photographs and made some videos. And then they probably posted it on their website. I don’t know what they get from this, but it surely does not help us”, says a young man.

“We live like dogs and this is how we are treated. You people have good intentions but what can you do if those in power really don’t care?” adds another man who is playing cards with Ubaid.

Asked about the circumstances in which they left their home state, he says, “The village we lived in was shared by big landlords. If you have land, you have dignity and a means of livelihood. We were mostly landless labourers who could not make a living there and had to take a different path. Who doesn’t want to live a comfortable life with food and a sense of security? Our ancestors had to leave that place because they could not bear the exploitation of the landlords there. At least here, we are safe from such violence and humiliation.”

However, the homeless people also allege that although living in the area is better than their home state, the police and the university security guards keep harassing them. “These huts are removed at the convenience of policemen and sometimes people come here to extort money,” Ubaid alleges.

OUT OF SIGHT: Authorities hid the abode of the homeless with the green netting

Existential crisis

Ubaid added that he knows how ‘the system works’. He spoke about the hollow promises of NGOs and other social service organisations. When Patriot inquired about what disappoints him about such organisations, he said, “All of this is a ‘system’. They come for photographs and give us blankets so that they can get funds from the government. But the money meant for us is grabbed by the middlemen.”

Interestingly, some young men in the area were inspired by recent protests that unfolded here two years ago, but added that such protests are not possible for homeless people because they are the most vulnerable section of society. “We are not a threat and this is why we cannot protest,” adds a young man who does not wish to be named.

Some distance away from the huts, there are ‘government compartments’ most of which are unoccupied. Residents of Bihar, who are mostly flood victims, have made their makeshift homes around them. “We have been living here since a long time, perhaps a few years,” says Urmila, a 50-year-old woman from Bihar.

Urmila adds that their family came to Delhi after facing a lot of environmental difficulties in their village. “It had become impossible to survive there because the floods hit our village every year. We have our own home there, but what good is a home if we cannot live in it?” Urmila asks.

A woman who did not wish to be named states that they are always faced with an existential crisis, which they have to suffer without any support from the government. Most of the women in the families work as sanitation workers in nearby areas. “A room costs Rs 3,000 a month and we cannot afford that,” she says. The rent for a single room in the nearby areas is much higher than Rs 3,000.

She spoke to Patriot about the petty crimes that take place in the area. “I don’t sleep at night. During the day, perhaps I take some rest but nights are really hard. I stay awake all night with the fear that some drug addict will barge into my hut and take away all my money or harm my kids, maybe even steal them,” she says.

Asked about the homeless people who live just some distance away from them in the same area, the woman replies: “We never talk to them because they all are kanjars (a caste slur).”

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