By Hasan Akram:
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.