By Abhimanyu Singh for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Recently, the AAP MLA Alka Lamba was cited as having said in the Delhi assembly that the homeless in the capital were dying due to taking drugs and not the cold. She made these remarks after the issue of the increasing number of homeless people dying in the capital was raised by BJP MLA Vijender Gupta. According to The Indian Express, Gupta said that “402 deaths of homeless persons were reported till date under the Kashmiri Gate police station area in the city, while the number was 221 last year.” He also alleged that the AAP government was not serious about this matter.
Unfortunately, another BJP MLA O.P. Sharma got into a mud slinging match with Lamba by making a sexist slur and the more important issue became only the background for their fight.
The thing is, Lamba is wrong. I have met her in the past and I admire her for making her way in the patriarchal world of politics, but her views on the subject can only be described as insensitive. The homeless can be killed with impunity in the heart of Delhi, and not even an FIR is lodged by the police. And this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the situation of the homeless people in Delhi is concerned.
I went around speaking to the homeless population that lives in Connaught Place, the veritable heart of the capital and came across two recent cases which have created a great deal of unrest and anguish among them.
It was while following-up on a very under-reported rape of a minor girl in the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara in late August this year, that I stumbled upon the tragic and inhuman death of Anil Paswan.
On the morning of 13 September 2015, Anil’s body was found dumped in a dustbin in Connaught Place, near the Hanuman Mandir. He is survived by two young children and wife Mowgli, who is partially deaf. His wife is from the Pardhi community, a de-notified tribe from Maharashtra, many of whom live on the streets of Connaught Place, near the Hanuman Mandir. There is a government-run shelter near the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib as well which has space for a few hundred residents. However, it is being avoided by women especially since an incident of alleged rape of a minor took place in August this year.
In fact, I came to know of Paswan’s case while trying to track down Shakuntala, a beggar woman who lives in the Bangla Sahib shelter and whose six years old granddaughter was the one who was allegedly raped by Jasbir, a sweeper who also lived in the shelter.
When it happened, it was Ali, another resident of the shelter who raised the alarm about the rape. “I was on duty as a crane operator that day. On my way back home in the evening, I heard some commotion in the bushes that lie at the edge of the shelter. When I went to check, I saw Jasbir and the girl, who ran out. Jasbir was beaten up by the residents and given to the police,” said Ali.
The girl’s grandmother, Shakuntala, told me that she had received no compensation from any quarter for the alleged crime committed against her granddaughter. “The Child Welfare Committee officers wanted me to surrender my grand-daughter to them,” she complained.
According to a researcher working on homelessness who accompanied me to the shelter, the demand by the Child Welfare Committee officials was likely to be based on an impression of negligence on Shakuntala’s part.
The six-year-old girl is now living with her parents whose whereabouts Shakuntala refused to share. Shakuntala lives with her Nihang Sikh husband Jarnail Singh, at the back of the Bangla Sahib shelter and begs at the Gurudwara.
All the concerned parties in the case said that Jasbir had been sent to Tihar, following his arrest. However, the police refused to state anything about the case, since it involved a rape. The Delhi government has, since the incident of rape, fired the Security Management Agency, which was running the night shelter and appointed another NGO in its place. The government’s action of appointing a Security Management Agency in the first place has also been questioned. Ashok Pandey, who runs the Shahari Adhikar Manch, which works for the homeless in Delhi, said that a security agency should not have been appointed in the first place as they did not know how to treat the inmates properly. There have been complaints that the guards with the agency would get drunk and enter the women’s cabins at nights. They have also been accused of beating up the inmates. Most of the inmates at Bangla Sahib do menial jobs, like serving as waiters during wedding parties, which is an especially popular work, while others work as sweepers etc.
Unlike in the six-year-old girl’s case, the police has made no arrests in Anil’s murder case.
The victim, Anil Paswan, who was also called ‘Chaddha’ by those who knew him, sold balloons, and other small items like toys on the streets near the Hanuman Mandir, his father-in-law, Bajrang Kare told me. Kare, as he tells me, is the unofficial Pradhan of the homeless Maharashtrian community that lives near Hanuman Mandir, “The police made me the Pradhan. Around 45 families from Sholapur, Maharashtra live here.” He has been living with his family at the present spot, near the Coffee Home, for the last five years. Before that, he lived with his family at three different spots in CP, over a period of 15 years or so.
Despite the fact that the police knows Bajrang Kare, the father-in-law of Anil Paswan, and his 22 member family that lives barely meters away from the CP police station, they are considering it a case of the murder of an “unknown” person, Kare complained. According to the medical certificate given for the death, the name of the deceased has been given as “lawaris (orphan)”, said Kare, who showed me a copy of the medical certificate. “They are not interested in investigating the case because we are poor,” said Kare, sitting on the stairs near the Coffee Home while his daughter Mowgli sat looking forlorn with her children close by. Kare added that the police had not made available a copy of the post-mortem report to them. He alleged that the police was trying to pass it off as a suicide since that reduces their responsibility to investigate the case. However, I was told by a friend of Anil Paswan, called Sunny, that he was beaten up badly by four of his acquaintances who suspected him of a petty theft a day before he died.
I met Sunny through Rahul, Kare’s son. Rahul, as I meet him, is a young man with gelled hair and a fondness for speaking English, and is currently volunteering with Citizens for Holistic Development, which works for the welfare of homeless people; CHD had held a public hearing after the minor girl was raped in the shelter home. I was also shown photographs of the dead body (of Paswan) by Kare after it was found in a dustbin and it bore clear marks of being beaten up as it had turned blue in places and looked heavily bruised; his wrists had also become gnarled.
Sunny, a short young man, who told me that he was a professional gambler, had seen Anil lying near the dustbin in the evening a day after he was beaten up. I had a look at the dustbin in which he was found. It was a large one, connected to a couple of other similar ones, at least five feet above the ground. Since the body had been pushed inside and garbage was thrown over it, it appears to have gone unnoticed by the beat policemen during the night.
“Anil did steal stuff at times as he was a smack addict. But he was innocent in this instance,” Sunny told me. He also owns a tea shop in the area. We met at the Coffee Home, with Rahul too in attendance. According to Sunny, Anil had also stolen his money the day before he was killed.
“I saw him lying there and I thought he must be very high, that’s why he must be lying on the street like this. It is true that I had not seen him like that before, but I was drunk myself so I went home and slept off. In the morning, when I returned, I informed Mowgli,” said Sunny. Anil’s body was found soon after, in the dustbin, with garbage strewn all over it, a cruel and fitting metaphor for the lives and deaths of the homeless in the capital.
The police did question two of the four people who had beaten up Anil but let them off, both Sunny and Rahul informed me. “Two of them ran off to Uttarakhand the same night Anil was killed. They later returned, but the police never questioned them.”
Sunny was also picked up by the police as the family suspected him, since he was the first person to have seen the body. However, he told me, in front of Rahul, that he had no reason to do so. “Why should I kill him for a small amount of money that he stole from me?”
In order to get the police’s version, I spoke to Pramod Kumar, an inspector rank police officer at the C.P. police station who was aware of Anil’s case. He maintained that an FIR could be registered only if the post-mortem report said that it was a case of murder. However, he gave no indication about what the post-mortem report had said, merely stating that Anil was a smack addict, and insinuating that that’s how he had died, possibly through an overdose.
However, others from the area contested that argument.
I spoke to Arun who sells ice close to the dustbin in which Anil’s body was found. He had also seen the body before the police took it away. “His legs were tied with rope. Also, how can he end up himself in a five-foot high dustbin?” he said. Arun, who knew Anil, added that the latter was not the type to commit suicide.
Sohja devi, who sells balloons on the streets, had also seen the body before it was taken away. “I tried to stop them from taking it away like that without photography. He was not a dog or a cat,” she said.
Just like his father, Rahul also told me that the police was not interested in pursuing the case as it was not bothered about the homeless. “They would have been on their toes investigating if some rich person had died. How can they call him an orphan? This is an abuse of their post,” he said, as we walked together after the chat with Sunny at the Coffee Home. He also told me that he was worried about his sister. He lives in Burari in a hostel, pursuing a graduate degree in photography from IGNOU, and doing a short-term course in the same at the Triveni Kala Sangam. “Find me a second-hand camera if possible,” he pleads with me in a tone that reveals him for the teenager that he is. He has also acted as the lead in a new documentary film about the homeless people from the area which will be out in January, he informs me.
It is evening and getting nippy. I make a general remark that the sentiment in Delhi is that winters are not that severe this year, in order to take our minds away from the tragedy for the time being. “You may feel that, but only the homeless people know how it feels to be out on the streets in winters. For them, it’s all the same,” Rahul retorts.
According to Ashok Pandey, the Delhi government has the required number of shelters, 200, or one shelter each for one lakh people as the courts had mandated earlier, but their total capacity is way less than what it should be. “Each shelter should have at least the space for having 100 people at a time but in general most shelters have less than half of that,” Pandey told me. He said that according to a survey his organisation had done in 2008, there were around one lakh homeless people in the capital. According to a report they released in 2014, it has gone up to 1,50,000.
Pandey added that allowing a security agency to take charge of running a shelter showed that the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board “lacked an understanding of the situation.”
“People don’t want to live in the shelters in any case as there are hardly any facilities. Families need privacy and they don’t get that. Women do not come for security reasons,” he said. He added that the women shelters in Regharpura and Karol Bagh were safe.
However, he told me that the AAP government was “more sensitive” to the situation than previous governments. “The DUSIB looks more alert and its monitoring is more satisfactory,” he said.
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said last week that additional arrangements had been made for the stay of 19000 more people in homeless shelters, while inaugurating two shelters near Kashmiri Gate; Pandey told me that the area was akin to a “hidden city of the homeless”. “We found close to 25,000 homeless persons living in the area during our survey,” he told me.
Kejriwal, during the inauguration, also defended the government for having launched an app for the homeless persons – following which the government was mocked on social media – and added that this would help people take a picture of the homeless people sleeping on the streets and alert it so that it could take measures to benefit them.
Of course, the app can only do so much. There are weightier matters to be considered.
I met Fazle Haque, the supervisor at a shelter home run by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses in Nizamuddin. The shelter houses approximately 180 inmates. It is a night shelter and it has been made free from 1 December to 15 March. The charges, when applicable, amount to Rs. 10 per night. Rs. 15 is charged extra for dinner. Rugs, beds and blankets are available for the inmates.
Apart from the inmates who come on their own, Haque, along with others, also conducts “rescue” operations to get homeless people in the shelter every night from 10 pm to 4 am.
“Mental patients are the most difficult to rescue. Earlier, we took mental patients to a shelter in gwal pahadi (Haryana) but the locals did not like it. They would stone the shelter at night and claim that property prices were going down so we had to give up on it. I feel sad, being unable to care for them even if I want to,” Haque, a native of Bihar told me. He added that the government needed to run a de-addiction centre for homeless kids too.
While the AAP government, especially the CM, might be sincere about the issue, if other MLAs from the party think like Lamba, it will be a herculean proposition to save the homeless from crimes committed against them, regardless of provisions for residence, work, and a life of dignity.