Prahlad (one name, according to his Aadhar card), is the eldest member of a large family of around 20 to 25 people, living under the Kalkaji flyover in South Delhi. Most of them were trying to sleep, huddled in blankets and mattresses provided by the government and charitable citizens, when The Sunday Guardian visited their makeshift "home" spread out over the pavement, while repair work on the road adjacent to it went on with a loud whirring noise.
Prahlad takes a break from warming himself near the fire they have lit on the pavement along with his wife. He is a rag-picker. It is the profession of the rest of the adults in the family as well, around half-a-dozen in number. "We leave around 11 a.m. each day and return by 9 p.m.," he says, his sunken eyes initially mistrustful. They earn around Rs 500-700 each day collectively.
His mistrust stems from the insecurity of an illegal existence that the homeless in Delhi and elsewhere in the capital face. Living unauthorised in urban spaces amounts to trespass and is liable for penalty. Living on pavements is interpreted as nuisance by the law and is punishable as well.
He and his extended family, originally from Rajasthan, belong to the estimated 300,000 homeless people in Delhi, out of which the greatest chunk is known to frequent the streets of Old Delhi, owing to its large markets, where most of them find employment as daily wage labourers. While some of his relatives continue working as agricultural labourers back in their village in Ajmer, the lack of rains has affected the agricultural activities and reduced the prospects of employment for many like them.
Prahlad is also part of a new trend. Unlike before, a large number of families now occupy the streets of the capital. The situation has worsened over the last couple of years, when the eviction of slum dwellers from the jhuggi jhopri settlements of Yamuna Pushta in the capital, beginning in 2004, became complete. The eviction was done to organise the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Dhananjay Tingal is a social worker who has been working with the homeless people of the capital for around two decades. He estimates that around 6,000 families were evicted from the Yamuna Pushta region. Counting on an average four members per family, at least 25,000 family members are now living on the streets of Delhi.
The slum that Prahlad and his family lived in around seven to eight years ago was demolished for constructing the Nehru Place metro station. "Some of our neighbours received plots elsewhere, but we did not get anything," he said. Bureaucratic red-tape came in their way.
The Delhi government runs around 150 night shelters in the capital, including the temporary ones. Only half of them are occupied, the government told the Delhi High Court recently. Only one shelter caters to families.
"Thefts, pick-pocketing and violence are common in these shelters. The women face difficulties," said Prahlad, explaining why the family prefers the streets. Police harassment is not common but takes place when thefts occur in the area.
Sachin Nath Thakur, caretaker at a government-run night shelter in Old Delhi, admits that "fights take place every once in a while. But I am able to control it." Drug-addicts enter the shelter occasionally. "I try to make them understand not to use drugs here. But if that does not work, I turn them out," he adds. Thakur came recently to the capital from Godda in Jharkhand.
Facilities in the shelter include two bathrooms for the 70-odd people along with a 24-hour water and electricity. Blankets are provided in winter and no rent is charged. It costs Rs 6 for staying the night in summers.
Around 40 people are staying at the night shelter run by the Beghar Mazdoor Sangharsh Samiti near Mori Gate. It is the only shelter in Delhi run by the homeless themselves. A kitchen has also been running for the last three months. "It is run on a no-profit-no-loss basis," says Mansoor Khan, who established the BMSS around a decade ago. Before he turned into an activist, Khan was homeless too and worked as a "loader" of goods in Old Delhi. The Tata group funds the shelter.
While the police is not known to harass them, the locals of the area are often hostile, as they believe that these shelters are populated by petty criminals and drug addicts, according to Sukhraj, a resident of the shelter who does odd jobs in the catering business: "Since we do not have a permanent address, they think we could leave anytime and find us less trustworthy."
Sukhraj came to Delhi a year ago from Punjab. "I have also worked as the shelter in-charge here. The biggest problem is to manage the drunks," he said.
A sizeable number of the homeless in Delhi also occupy empty shop-fronts outside Kashmiri Gate, Sadar Bazar and Chawri Bazar in Old Delhi. The homeless here prefer to live with those who belong to the same region. Around two dozen of them, all from Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, live on Hamilton Road behind Old Delhi railway station.
All of them work as "loaders". According to them, the police does not harass them or take money as they have a local patron, but the sanitation workers bother them in the morning. Asked why they do not live in the government night shelters, Shyam Nishad, a labourer who has been staying here "since Indira Gandhi's assassination (in 1984)", said, "one shelter is in Chabhigunj. Another is at Mori Gate. If the goods (to unload) arrive, no one will go and call us from there." They do not want to live in the night shelters, citing incidents of thefts and drunken brawls.
The Sunday Guardian visited the only night shelter for families in the capital, run by an NGO, near Meena Bazar in Old Delhi. Riyasad Ali, the caretaker on duty, accepted that payments from the government were delayed yet again. "We get some donations from our well-wishers," he said. Around 40-odd people occupy the shelter. A few of them, labourers from Bihar have been living here since their childhood. "We face no problems," says Mohammad Furquan. His sister, Hazara Khatoon and brother Shaukat Ali Khan, agree, while their parents sleep. Both brothers work in the catering business.
The Delhi government is no more involved in running shelters in the capital. The responsibility has been shifted to St Stephens, which has been made the Mother NGO, since 2010. Payments are often delayed, sometimes to the tune of six-seven months, from the government's side, thereby making it difficult for the shelters to manage their finances, especially for smaller ones.