The Meena Bazaar in Delhi on a chilly night in the second week of February. I’m climbing down the stairs leading to the main thoroughfare of this once-famous market, leaving behind the chorus of yells coming from a nearby tea stall and the hum of noises from Urdu Bazaar. I am heading into an ugly world which the city has spurned: a world of poverty, of crime, of mutilated hopes, of strangled aspirations and of starvation.
I make my way down a crowded stairway. There must have been 20-odd people on the stairs: they are among the thousands of homeless of Delhi who have survived another season of winter. They could also just as easily have been among the hundreds who die every year due to the cold in the capital.
Two rain baseras (night shelters) have been set up in the bazaar by the Delhi government. I turn left towards the dry hauz (reservoir) behind which lies one of the night shelters. The floor of the hauz serves as a bed for many homeless people — it’s occupied tonight by families, men sitting around a fire made up of burning waste and many a drug addict. On my left, in the corner, there is a trail of homeless people which extends till the automobile market all the way from the mausoleum of Maulana Azad.
The approach to this shelter is paved with stones and pieces of glass from broken bottles scattered all around in the path. As I enter the shelter, everything seems to be in order at first. There is a separate space for women, men and families. Some 40-odd men sprawl about next to each other on the ground which is covered with dhurries in the men’s section — so tightly that one could hardly move an elbow without jostling the other. Murad Ahmed, caretaker of the place sits by his desk going about his business. He is making entries in a register for those who have just arrived to spend the night here. I tell him the purpose of my visit. After finishing his work, he says, “We allow anyone who can prove his or her identity to sleep here. Most of the people who sleep out in the open are mostly drug addicts and those who do not wish to sleep here. We don’t stop anyone.” The night shelter is under the care of SPYM (NGO). Ahmed tells me, everything here is in order but the problem is water. “The water tanker is supposed to come every day but it usually turns up once in three days. That creates a problem for the families who live permanently here. We have requested for a water pipeline to end this problem. But we are still awaiting a reply from the authorities,” he says.
I make my way down a crowded stairway. There must have been 20-odd people on the stairs: they are among the thousands of Delhi’s homeless people, who have survived another season of winter.
At the other night shelter in Urdu Park, I found some kids sitting in the children’s room of the shelter. Here, too, there is a separate section for men and families. The children’s room looked more like a classroom with drawings, timetable and other things neatly pasted on the wall. A child who hails from Patna tells me that this is his home now.
My next quest is to find the sleep mafia who rent quilts in this area. I start making inquiries. After a while, a rickshaw-puller guides me to a tree under which I find Pappu, who must have been in his early 30s, watching cricket on his small laptop-like television. He operates from a small tobacco products shop near the Ramleela Ground entrance of the Meena Bazaar. Few quilts lie on a cot next to where he sits. Pappu notices me approaching his shop. “You rent quilts?” He nods. I ask him, “How much does it cost to rent a quilt for a night?” He regards me with a look of surprise and asks, “You need one?” I tell him I’m from a newspaper and this immediately puts him on his guard. I try to make a conversation about the state of the night shelters in this area and the number of homeless people I found on my way to his shop. He is convinced that I don’t mean any harm. It is now that he starts to talk unenthusiastically. He tells me the rent for a quilt: Rs 10 for old one and Rs 20 for a fairly new one. He begins to talk more like a social worker. “A lot of labourers sleep here every night,” he says, “In summer too, you will find them here. I just have 20-25 quilts… I’m only trying to help these people. They have no homes. Even if someone who doesn’t have money comes to me, I don’t say no to them.” After probing a little, I ask him if there are other sleep vendors in the area. He tells me to go towards Pathar Wale near Chandni Chowk and look for an old man near the Ramleela Ground parking lot.
I make my way through men sleeping on the pavement, wondering how in the world can one sleep with only a quilt to cover one’s body; that too in the open and without any covering underneath. Most have newspapers and brown sacks underneath while some lie on the bare street. I cross the road and turn right towards Pathar Wale. After what must have been a three minutes’ walk, I reach the place which matches Pappu’s description. But here was no old man. Instead, a turbaned young man is passing the cot beds to someone on the other side of the wall. I watch the man from a distance going into a room and returning with quilts, blankets and a cot on his head and passing them to the other side. A slender man with a damaged left eye stands by the wall near the stool which the other man is using to pass the stuff to the other side of the wall. He stands there smoking a beedi, looking at the busy street in deep contemplation. I approach the man just in time, the turbaned man has returned to the room. The man’s gaze remains fixed on the street. When I ask for the old man, he bluntly tells me to jump over the wall and turns his face back towards the street. I decide not to jump after standing on the stool and examining the area on the other side of the wall. I climb down the stool and ask the man: “Do you sleep here?” No answer, the man looks hard at me and instantly his gaze shifts to the man who stands behind me now with quilts on his head, waiting for me to give him space. I shift a little to let the other man pass the stuff to the other side. I ask the man as he descends whom to get in touch with in order to rent a quilt. On his way back to the room, he says, “Pay Rs 40 to Mullah ji and you get a cot and a quilt for a night.” I’m left with the one-eyed man, whose name I learnt later.
Pappu notices me approaching his shop. “You rent quilts?” He nods. I ask him, “How much does it cost to rent a quilt for a night?” He regards me with a look of surprise and asks, “You need one?” I tell him I’m from a newspaper and this immediately puts him on his guard.
50-year-old Raju Saha has been living on the streets of Delhi for 19 years. His damaged left eye makes him look dangerous. He talked a great deal about his life on the road. About numerous incidents when a knife was put to his throat and his money was taken away by gangs that operate here in the wee hours of the morning. Like Raju, there are many others who work in the nearby markets as labourers earning anything between Rs 150 to Rs 300 as daily wages, out of which if we calculate almost half of the amount goes towards feeding themselves. And then they have to pay every night for sleep too. Plus, they must be sending something back home to their families. There are lunatics and others who seem to have no work. Some gaze into the nothingness constantly, others have no sense of time and place. I encountered many such shattered souls that night in the streets of Delhi. Most grumbled about the things they lost on the road. They all had a sad story or two. Yet, the life of a big city like Delhi, moves at a leisurely pace, despite thousands who dwell here with nothing to eat; no place to sleep.
Raju takes me to the other side of the Ramleela Grounds, to a closed grilled gate through which I can see cots lined up next to each other in the front. Few men are already asleep in their beds on the right. Now, he calls out to the old man, “Mulla ji, Mulla ji”. A man with a white beard wearing a white turban appears from the dark moments later.
63-year-old Abdul Wahab has been in the sleep business for 30 years. He safeguards the belongings and money of his customers while they sleep under his arrangements. In between my conversation with Wahab which circled around his business, a drunk man comes to pay his credit to Wahab — Rs 120, rent for three nights. Although Wahab looks older than his age, he has that dauntless aura which is perhaps why he commands respect among these men. Every night he makes arrangements for the sleep of around 25-30 men. Sensing trouble, he says, “I keep their belongings safe with me while they sleep. There are so many thieves here who come looking for preys at night.” Raju who stands next to me agrees with Wahab and tells me that he has kept his money with him for years now. As I part with Wahab, he says, “I can stop this business, if there is a problem.”
The following night, I set out for Motia Khan area near Pahar Ganj. My first stop is Punjabi Academy where lives 50-60 families in a dingy ground floor of the building, which is insufficient to house even 5 families. The place looks like a bigger version of a train compartment. There’s a small aisle which divides the spaces of families on both sides. Right at the entrance, there’s small space where lives around 8 families. They have used sheets as walls to make division for privacy. In a sense, all they have is a roof and three toilets. Power cuts are regular during the day time. For five long years, they have been living here. School going kids and college going boys and girls too live here with their families. They belong to the slum area near Ram Manohar Lohia hospital in the central part of the city which was demolished by the Delhi government before Commonwealth Games in 2011. The court case is in final stages, I learn from the residents. The place was under the care of Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (NGO) till last month. Now Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) directly handles it. Rita Devi, a mother of two who has been living here ever since her family was evicted from the slums, says, “They keep giving us an extension, it’s been five years now. Now again they have assured us that they will start with allotment of flats soon. My children are growing up, their studies get hampered. How can a child study in a place like this.”
Some distance from the Punjabi Academy stands another four-storey shelter in the area. There too, live families which were rehabilitated from a roundabout near Pusa Road in 2011. The place is in a terrible condition, stinks badly. One can hardly stand in the hall due to the stench here. Until last month, food was being served here three times a day. It has been discontinued to encourage the people living here to earn their bread.
Bipin Rai, expert member, DUSIB, on a phone call, says, “Although the policies have changed now but we will be giving allotment of houses according to the policies which were in place when these families were evicted. Only those who are eligible and have proper documents will be allotted flats which are for economically weaker section in different parts of the city.”