Choices on the streets

Published : Apr 13, 2002 00:00 IST

For many of Delhi's homeless people, the city's night shelters are their only stable anchor. Closing them down leaves the destitute with no home and no protection.

FOR the greater part of two decades, the only home that Vijay Singh has known in Delhi has been the dusty pavements near the Old Delhi railway station. Most nights he has spent under a starless grey sky dulled by smog and harsh city lights. It is this profoundly lonely public space around which he has built his life these many years, a space that he shares with more than a hundred thousand anonymous homeless men and women, boys and girls who live their lives out on the streets of India's capital city.

The congested medieval walled city of Delhi, spanned by six historical gates, accommodates within its aging alleys, crumbling footpaths and overgrown parks, more than 30 per cent of Delhi's homeless people. It is a vibrant economic hub of the city, which never sleeps. For homeless workers like Vijay, wage work as hammaals - porters - is available mainly at night, when the dense and feverish daytime throng of rickshaws and cars, travellers and shoppers give way after darkness settles, to trucks and hand-carts for loading and unloading merchandise in its burgeoning wholesale markets. The railway station handles 188 passenger trains through day and night - a larger number than any other railway station in the world. Night is therefore the time for work, but also the only time available for a few hours of sleep, when small stretches of the footpath or the central verge of the highway are silently occupied by legions of tired bodies stretched out precariously, to steal a few hours of unsteady and tenuous rest, amidst the unrelenting glare of the street lights, the diesel fumes, the dust raised by trucks and the constant danger of speeding drunken car drivers.

It is on these pavements that Vijay has grown from a runaway teenager to a middle-aged man, with a wiry, strong frame, intelligent and alert eyes, black, close-cropped hair and a ready smile. Resolutely without self-pity, as he talks about his life, he returns over and over again to his dreams and ambitions, which he describes endearingly using the English word 'choice': "Yeh mera choice tha".

Vijay Singh grew up in a village close to Gwalior city. His 'choice' was above all to educate himself, but circumstances did not allow him to study beyond the second standard. His father was murdered under mysterious circumstances, when Vijay was a boy of 12, his sister five years younger and his brother an infant in his mother's arms. Their agricultural land was acquired to build the Gwalior airport. He looked for work, at the airport construction site, and at factories, but he was turned away as being too young. His widowed mother struggled to bring up her children by cleaning the dishes and sweeping homes in Gwalior city.

Young Vijay abandoned forever his dreams of books and reading. He replaced them with another 'choice' - to go to the big city of Delhi, to earn money, to establish a business, and to provide for his impoverished family in Gwalior. His mother should not have to slave, his sister should marry well, his brother should have the chance to study that Vijay himself had missed. These were Vijay Singh's 'new choices', which led him to the streets of Delhi.

But this journey was to begin first in Bombay. One day, some two years after his father's death, Vijay without taking leave of his family left with a friend for Bombay. His companion was a couple of years older than Vijay, and had travelled to Bombay earlier. They had money only for railway tickets to Vadodara (Baroda), and there they emerged at the railway station. They were sleeping in a public park, when a policeman caught them and locked them up for three days. It was the first time both had seen the inside of a police station. When they were released, Vijay's shaken companion decided to return to the village. But Vijay was determined to go on to Bombay. He begged a small hotel owner to buy his watch, and with some seventy five rupees that he paid Vijay, he set out for Bombay.

For two days, he scoured the city, on foot or ticketless on a local train, in search of work and a place to live. In the end, desperate with loneliness, he spotted two young boys sleeping on the pavement outside Dadar station. He told them his story, and asked for their help to find work. "We clean the windscreens of cars and taxis at road crossings," they told him, "and ask the drivers for money." They gave him a piece of yellow cloth and invited him to join them. He began work the next day, and money started coming in.

He rarely stayed in one place or with one group of boys. Instead he moved compulsively around the metropolis, and when he had extra money, he visited Film City, saw movies, and explored all the tourist locations and markets of the city. "The days were fine," Vijay recalls, "but at night as I lay on the pavements, a pain would grow within my chest. Is this any kind of life? To wash cars, eat, sleep on the streets? There are days when the rain does not stop in Bombay for three days in a row, four days, even a week. I recall sitting once in an abandoned tempo vehicle for four days, soaked, cold, alone, miserable without food. From time to time, the police would catch us and lock us up in the police station. The lock-up would be closed from all sides, so many of us crowded in a tiny space, no windows, beaten by police sticks, released after several days."

TWO years passed, and Vijay decided that Bombay was not the city for him. He took a train to Delhi, to begin life all over again. Within days of his arrival in Delhi, he found work in a dhaba, a modest roadside eatery for railway passengers near the Old Delhi station. He worked through the day, and slept at night in the dhaba itself, on the floor below the wooden tables.

He saved money, about five thousand rupees gathered over a period of six months, and decided to visit, after more than three years, his family in Gwalior. It was a sentimental moment, the memories of which he still treasures. His mother was overjoyed to see him again, and the entire village gathered to meet him. His mother begged him to stay back, but he reasoned with her. What would they eat? How would they live? He was earning enough now to send money home regularly. She would have enough money to bring up his brother and sister. He did not want her to struggle any more.

His mother let him go.

Back in Delhi, the owner of the dhaba where he worked died, and his family sold the shop to a transport company. A whole string of transport and travel companies sprang up alongside, replacing the food stalls. Vijay found work as a porter, loading merchandise on the trucks and baggage on to passenger buses. He continues this work until today, earns well enough to eat, and regularly saves money to send home - a few thousand rupees every six months.

But following the sale of the dhaba he was once again on the streets. If he hired a room to live in, he would have to spend money on rent and travel to work. There would be nothing left for him to send to his mother in Gwalior. So it was to be the pavements outside the Old Delhi station instead that he would make his only home in Delhi.

VIJAY'S 'choice' of a dwelling on the streets for the sake of his family in the village, resonates with the choices of thousands of others who sleep on the pavements of Delhi each night. A survey of homeless people in Delhi in 2000 by Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, a dedicated group of young people working for the rights of homeless people, confirmed that contrary to what many people assume, no more than 4 per cent of the homeless adults in Delhi are destitute and unemployed. More than 70 per cent of them migrate to the city from the countryside in search of work because of desperate poverty. About 26 per cent find casual wage work as loaders and porters, 33 per cent ply rickshaws and handcarts, and 7 per cent work in food stalls. Three out of every four homeless persons in Delhi maintain links, like Vijay, with their families in the villages and towns, and almost 60 per cent save money and send it home. So, like Vijay, they choose homelessness, in order that their families survive in the lands of their birth.

Close to where Vijay loads merchandise and baggage on to trucks and buses, is a night shelter run by the government. For over a hundred thousand homeless people, the Delhi government runs over 14 night shelters, with a maximum capacity of 2,937 people. In other words, night shelters provide a roof for not more than 3 per cent of all homeless people in the city. There are none for women, or migrant families. Of the government shelters, the largest is the one near the Old Delhi railway station, in the vicinity of which Vijay works. Started in 1964, it was the first night shelter to be opened by the government. In winter and during the rains, its four large halls are crowded well beyond its official capacity of 514 persons. The facilities are rudimentary. For a fee of six rupees a night, bare common mats are spread out on the floors, on which men sleep, body against body. Blankets are provided for the winter, and there are common toilets and bathing places, erratically cleaned but always in demand.

Vijay uses the toilets and baths, but otherwise prefers the independence of sleeping under the open sky. Outside the shelters, private contractors, called thijawalahs, rent out quilts and plastic sheets for five rupees a night. Iron cots are lined up in the corridors outside shops, for a rent of fifteen rupees a night.

However, the blaze of the street lights, and the clamour of traffic and loaders working through the night, are unremitting. It is ganja that gives Vijay the peace he needs for a few hours of sleep. But this is often disturbed by policemen, who routinely beat on their feet and shins the men, women and children sleeping on the streets.

Even as we spoke together for many hours, Vijay admitted that he was intoxicated with ganja. "I have smoked ganja for so many years, the time has come when I do not know whether I am sober or high," he says. "I need the ganja because it alone brings me solitude. There is no place I can go to in order to escape the din, the hordes, where I can be by myself. Where I can think, be at peace, be at rest. Only when I smoke my ganja, I can be alone even in a crowd."

The Old Delhi night shelter remained for several years the one stable anchor in Vijay's life in Delhi. When winter was vengeful with bleak and icy winds, or the streets were awash with the monsoon sludge and garbage, he always had the night shelter to return to. Besides, he used the shelter's bathrooms and toilets throughout the year. And many men, who worked as truck-loaders, rickshaw-pullers, casual workers, or railway porters, had lived in the shelter for several years. Street boys whom Vijay would take under his wing from time to time always had the assurance of a roof over their heads at the night shelter. One hall was reserved for street boys. The shelter, decrepit, unclean, basic, crowded, dirty, still became to Vijay and so many who lived in and around it, the closest they had in Delhi to a home.

Then suddenly, without warning or notice, in July 2000, exactly 36 years after it was opened, the night shelter was closed down. It was converted into a detention centre for 'illegal' Bangladeshi refugees. For the 500 to 1,000 men and boys who had slept every night on a few square feet each of its floors, as their only defence against the cold and rain, it was like being rendered more profoundly homeless all over again. They spilled back on to the surrounding overflowing pavements, where they passed a bitterly cold winter in 2000.

This was not the only night shelter to be closed down. In May 2001, a night shelter at Turkman Gate was closed down. A few months later, in September 2001, a shelter at Meena Bazaar near Jama Masjid was also shut, as part of what was described by the authorities as a 'beautification' drive.

The activists of Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan slowly galvanised Vijay Singh and his friends to fight this injustice. They came together on a platform for the first time, which they called the Beghar Sangharsh Samiti (Home-less People's Struggle Committee). Another group that gave itself the name Yuva Ekta Manch (Homeless Youth Group) came up at Jama Masjid. These motley groups of dispossessed men met to discuss how to deal with the closure of even the new legal spaces that the government had conferred on homeless people. On September 19, 2001, they decided to organise a demonstration. A group of 70 homeless people marched to Rajghat, and took a pledge of non-violent resistance. Among them was Vijay. The group then proceeded to the office of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi where they sat in a dharna. In terms of scale and participation, it was a modest protest. But for the homeless people who joined in it, it was the first time they felt able to demand their rights from the state.

Less than a week after the agitation, but months after its abrupt closure, the government relented and the night shelter was restored. In the winter of 2001, the doors of the night shelter at the Old Delhi railway station were reopened, and once again teems with several hundred slumbering men and boys on any given night. For Vijay and the Beghar Sangharsh Samiti there is a quiet sense of triumph. They are determined to keep it alive to secure a better life for the homeless workers and street children who live within the walled city. They now propose to ask the government to hand over the management of the night shelter to the homeless people themselves, so that they can convert it into a place of dignity and rest.

Vijay pays the policemen a daily bribe of Rs.20 in order to run a small cigarette stall under a tree close to the night shelter, which he operates in addition to casual wage work, the staple of his income. Over the years he has run through many trades, sometimes selling tea or snacks or chapatis, but each time, despite his daily allurements to the men in khaki, and the municipal staff at least two or three times a month, it invariably comes to pass that his wares are confiscated by the municipal office. He has befriended a lawyer, who is uncompromising about his fees (Rs. 200 a hearing) but is otherwise supportive and effective. The last time, in June 2001, Vijay had to pay Rs. 950 as fine to the municipal authorities after the exertions of the lawyer, to get his cigarette stall released. But by the time he regained possession of it, the money from sales had disappeared and the materials had been partly destroyed.

On the night that we spoke together, the cigarette stall, under the tree, was doing good business, even though it was almost dawn. Instead of Vijay, a young boy sat at the stall. "He has come from Bengal," Vijay told me. He has no one to take care of him, so I asked him to sit at the stall. Whatever he earns he can keep, and he can stay as long as he likes. It is often that Vijay takes care of young boys who start life on the streets in the way that he himself had two decades earlier.

DESPITE his 'choice' for his brother Raju, and the money that he sent home regularly, Raju grew up unschooled in Gwalior. Afraid that Raju too would end up like him on the footpaths, Vijay brought him to Delhi. He arranged for him to learn work at a garage at Kingsway Camp. Raju has learnt the trade of a car mechanic and Vijay hopes to set up a garage for him. His sister was married a few years ago. They found decent people, who agreed to take no dowry. He is still able to send money home regularly for his aging mother.

Vijay remains virtually unlettered, yet he has emerged as a reluctant leader of other homeless men. He speaks like a philosopher of the streets, acutely observant, analytical, caring but carefully unsentimental. He has views that are entirely his own about everything - politics, the state of the city and the country, the Prime Minister's performance, ethics, religion. Vijay refuses to complain about his life, and says that he has no grievance against God. "He has given me a healthy body, two eyes, two hands, two feet, a good mind, what more can I ask for?" he says.

But he is uncompromising on the resolve that he will never marry or raise a family. "I cannot let my child have a life like the one that I have led," he says quietly. "I cannot. I am content instead to see my brother have a family, and a home. This is enough for me," he adds.

Does he think that he will continue to live the same way that he does now on the streets of Delhi? "Twenty years have passed," he says. "Who knows what the next 20 years have in store for me? My father left a small piece of land in my name in the village. It was the only part of our property that was not acquired for the Gwalior airport. Maybe I will be able to return to it one day. Maybe I will be able to build on it my home. Maybe that is where, with my mother, I will spend my last days. Under a roof, within walls that I can call my own. May be."

Harsh Mander is the country director of Action Aid India.

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