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As Delhi’s Winter Gets Harsher, This Is How Slum Dwellers Are Forced To Battle The Cold

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By Hasan Akram:

For representation. Source: Thomas Galvez
For representation. Source: Thomas Galvez

Food, clothing and shelter are the three basic needs of life. One cold night, this winter, I got a chance to meet people who are deprived of shelter, as well as the other two as they hardly had either any food or clothing.

These people live illegally on the land that belongs to the U.P government, near Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi. It was pathetic to see them living in tents made of cheap tarpaulin and dried bamboo. Access to electricity was a distant dream for them. Only the periphery was illuminated by roadside bulbs nearby.

I saw a bed linen, spread under the open sky without any shelter of tarpaulin. A teenager, who was warming himself at the pyre nearby, was to sleep on it with a cheap blanket to cover himself. I exclaimed, “yaar, thandi to bahut lagti hogi! (You must feel extremely cold).” He replied, helplessly, “What else can I do?”

It was most shocking to see their life under the thin tarpaulin in the harsh nights of winter. They do not have sufficient warm clothes, or roofs on their heads to protect themselves from the cruel weather. They said, “We don’t have sufficient blankets.” I asked, “didn’t you go to the warm clothes distribution centres? A warm clothes donation centre was organised just behind this wall. Did you go there?” Some replied that they knew nothing about NGOs and distribution centres, and some told me that they were not offered any warm clothes. Mariyam, an old woman burst out, “eh, I went to a distribution center in Zakir Nagar. I begged them for warm clothes. They distributed among all the others but I had to return empty-handed with tears in my eyes.” From here, I came to know that living a nomadic life is cursed enough to be treated as untouchables by the so-called liberal NGOs.

They described water to be the biggest problem. They are not able to find enough water, a thing so essential for a normal life. Irrigation water is supplied by the Delhi Jal Board for plantation in the nearby park. They beg the irrigators for irrigation water to drink but are refused. Adil from Fiazabaad says, “They pour water on the earth but do not give it to human beings to drink.”

There are 15-20 tarpaulin tents in this area that stretches several acres. Each tent belongs to a family. Families (including those with more than 50 individuals) live in these tents like nomads. They have come from villages and small towns but they neither have permanent homes in their native place nor here in the city. Sahil, a teenager who works as a cobbler, said, “We do not even have a small piece of land in our village. Our family lives there on land they do not own. We fear that we may be evicted at any time.” Their children do not get an education.

Most of them have been living under fly-overs and in fields for decades. They have been living on this piece of land for the last 15 years. Mariyam, an old woman, has been displaced from one field to another for last 40 years. She has a young daughter to marry.

In Indian cities, even people of the elite class suffer from a scarcity of jobs and employment. Then, what better can these downtrodden people hope for. Proper jobs and employment are not available to them. Their women and elders beg from door to door and their men work as cobblers, construction workers and laborers etc. They face abuse at work. They are mistreated by their owners and sometimes are not paid their due. Adil left many jobs due to the behavior of contractors and owners. He served as a mason in the house of one Sunil at Nehru Place. He worked nine hours a day. He was initially promised Rs. 9,000 per month, but at the end of the month, the owner refused to pay the full amount. He was paid Rs. 4,000 only. Sahil, who works as a cobbler, said, “Yesterday, a shopkeeper slapped me for working in front of his shop.”

They all are victims of the biting winter as well as of social abuse. The story of Saleem, a child who met a car accident, is really heart-breaking. Aslam, the father of the victim, introduced me to him. His right foot was fractured. Its tibia (bone) was badly damaged. As such, a steel surgery was done on the foot of innocent Saleem. Approximately, Rs.20,000 has been spent for the cure of the fracture in four months. When I asked Aslam how he managed this huge amount of money, he gave a short reply, “some people helped me.” He pleaded me to conceal the secret of the Rs.20000, frightened of an inquiry and investigation. Saleem was hit by a car near the Holy Family Hospital, but the driver managed to escape, leaving Aslam to be exploited and bear the full expenditure.

A mother, with her baby sleeping in her lap, was sitting closeby. She looked beautiful in the shining light by the roadside. I went straight to her and asked her to tell me about her condition, but she gave me no details. “All come, write and go. Nothing changes. Some girls had also come earlier but nothing happened.” This mother had little hope from journalists and writers.

The best thing I found among them was their courtesy. When I wanted to write the details, they guided me to a well-lit area and provided me with a stool to sit on. A man begged me for money. I became extremely generous at that point but had only Rs. 30 in my pocket. I offered him all of it. I told him, feeling ashamed: “I had only thirty rupees with me. If I had more I could definitely give you more.” He began returning the three notes of Rs. 10 in a gesture of compassion. He said, “If you don’t have money, please keep these with yourself.” What kind of people they are! They live in distressing plight but do not forget to think of others. In spite of living such a miserable and pathetic life, their humanity is still alive.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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