New Internationalist

Homeless in Delhi

Issue 411

Jeremy Seabrook meets the people who shelter in the ‘rainshadow of wealth’ in India’s capital city.

A smoky sunset in the choking streets around Old Delhi Railway Station, where the traffic is permanently stalled. Low sunlight through a violet cloud bathes the scene in blood. Stringy cycle-rickshaw drivers strain every muscle with a mountainous load of goods to be despatched from the station. Everything moves with agonizing slowness, as though people are in an alien element. As indeed they are: displaced villagers struggling to survive in the city.

Behind the main road is a shelter for homeless men: an extensive structure, a series of hangars which provide bedspace for 350-400 people. The concrete floor is smooth, worn away by the bodies, or perhaps the dreams, of sleeping men. The walls are painted crimson at the base – to make invisible the splashes of betel – and yellow up to the ceiling, where fans flutter, captive metal birds, dispersing the rank smell of sweated labour. Around the walls, black-painted metal bunks, three tiers high; evocative of third-class rail travel or, more disturbingly, of the accommodation provided for prisoners in Bergen-Belsen. The men pay six rupees ($0.15) a night; the elderly, those with disability, children, pay nothing.

People must desert their family for the sake of its future – yet their desertion jeopardizes the very future they envisage for those they love

One room is for working men, the next for the elderly, both segregated from the boys and adolescents. This hostel was formerly run by Delhi Municipal Corporation, to which the building still belongs. Originally inaugurated by Nehru but, in keeping with the retreat of government from welfare provision, the service has been contracted out to a non-governmental organization, Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (Right to Shelter).

Government, which implements programmes that uproot more and more people from the rural areas, passes over to a voluntary body care of the injuries of development. But government is, of course, only carrying out orders, as it were, for a higher authority: the framers and dispensers of distant ideologies of liberalization, of which the occupants of these sleeping-spaces are victims.

Night shelter

Estimates suggest Delhi has at least 100,000 homeless people, most of them male. Night shelters accommodate a maximum of 7,000 – a fraction of the need, as can be seen all over Delhi: sleepers lie on traffic islands, in doorways, in grassy spaces, on ledges and beneath walls, wrapped in colourless rags like cerements.

Most men work. Few remain in the city without income: only the doubly destitute, robbed of family and belonging, hide their pain in the loveless bustle of the city. Their work does not provide enough to rent a room. Here is the embodiment of ‘informal’ or ‘casual’ labour, a convenient abstraction for used-up flesh and bone.

They push carts, drive cycle-rickshaws, work on tea-stalls and dhabas, as day labour on construction sites. The minimum daily wage in Delhi is 90 rupees ($2.23), but despair is the most effective wage-depressant. Many are villagers, whose migration to the city is a seasonal smash-and-grab raid: they live in frugal self-denial to save precious earnings that will educate children who, they are resolved, will not journey to the city, as they did, in trucks or on the roof of buses.

They are from a vast arc of rural poverty, the rainshadow of wealth around Delhi. Some have fled land disputes, unwelcome marriages, disturbed sexuality, quarrels with brothers or parents, amputees of the land from which they have been separated. Among the children, bewildered runaways – the stowaway, the truck helper – who came to the city because there is nowhere else to go out of a degraded agrarian life. Sometimes they have, like Santosh, 16, from Darbhanga, been steeped in urban lore of immense wealth; with both parents dead, he has nothing else to lose.

Even skilled workers – carpenters, painters, masons – sit at the crossroads in the pale morning, with paintbrushes, hammers, saws, the tools of their trade, waiting to be hired. The ‘slave-market’ they call it. At 8.00am they may be offered 100 rupees, but by 10.00am or 11.00am the rate has fallen to 60 rupees: the passing morning hours erode the value of labour.

Manoj, from Jhansi, is a seasonal migrant who came to Delhi for the first time four years ago. He stays a few months, labouring on a construction site, and spends the rest of the year at home. Sleeping here costs 200 rupees a month. At home there is no rain and the harvest is small. In the city, people who build houses for others have none of their own. If he had work in the village he would never come to Delhi. He is part of a great global paradox: people must desert their family for the sake of its future; yet their desertion jeopardizes the very future they envisage for those they love.

Place of safety

The shelter is a place of safety. For lone sleepers the streets are dangerous, not only the menace of thieves, but the threat of police, whose meagre wages are soon supplemented by extortion from the poor.

The people speak in metaphors. In Delhi, they say, brothers do not recognize each other. Santaram, a cart-pusher from Secundarbad, sometimes earns as little as 40-50 rupees. He has been coming and going for 15 years. He is married with one little girl. He takes all he earns to the village, paring his expenses to a minimum, as his thin, wasted body eloquently tells.

In Delhi, they say, brothers do not recognize each other

It should not be imagined that all are victims: some have chosen this life. Among them is Gopal Sharma, who left a well-to-do family in Bihar because, as he said in English: ‘There was no adjustment with my eldest son.’ An educated man, he left his village to maintain his dignity. His son has repeatedly begged him to come home. When he is ready he will go, even though it has been many years: he would rather remain here than go where he will not be treated with respect.

It is, of course, the universal sagacity of elders that the young have taken the wrong path; this friction exists between all generations, but has been exacerbated by the dramatic economic and hence social changes occurring in India: many young people have greater skills and higher earning power than the generation before. Where elders might have instructed and guided them in the ways of dealing with poverty, it is now they who initiate parents into the mysterious ways of growing affluence which, they believe, will last forever. This is shocking to people who have hoarded and husbanded their slender resources for the rainy days which came regularly as monsoons in their stricken lives. The stories of individuals are entangled with epic social dislocations.

The shelter is open 24 hours for the infirm elderly. Some are too old to work, although most do some casual labour – waiting at marriage parties, whitewashing, portering, buying seasonal items in the market and selling them on the footpath. Many were formerly skilled – car mechanics, drivers. Ram Gopal, a mechanic, knew how to repair old models of car. He could not cope with changing technology, since cars now need spare parts from the manufacturers; the ingenuity of repairers is no longer required. Specialization has ousted the competent, those who know how to make do and mend, to invent and to create their own solutions.

In the shelter the infirm, those with failing memory, are helped by the able-bodied. These acts of kindness give succour to the dependent and a sense of purpose to those who retain their strength into old age. Strangely, family structures are mimicked, even in places where people have lost or been rejected by their families. For them, the shelter is truly a refuge.

There are other casualties in the war against the poor – victims of road, rail and industrial accidents; as well as those with disability or people with untreated sickness. Nishant, from Surat, is blind, and makes a living by singing and begging. ‘It is a curse to be blind,’ he says. ‘Begging is not dignified, but singing is. I know Indian classical music, so I consider I earn my money. I give people pleasure. I sing at the Hanuman Temple and at the Sai Baba Temple. I am a graduate in Sanskrit from Surat University. I am happy that I am Indian. My mother was born in Fiji, but she came to India in her childhood. I left Surat because I want to live life on my own terms, not depend on others. Lord Krishna is not a god, he is my friend. He comes when I call.’

A doctor comes to the shelter once a week; but doctors also volunteer with the Health Intervention Group for the Homeless and hold a surgery in the open air two days a week. They share the concrete space outside the Jama Masjid with hawkers and vendors. It is a touching sight. In the dust and cool smoky air of evening, lines of (mainly) men sit waiting for the doctors to come. There are three queues, one for new patients, one for follow-up medication – coughs, lung and chest infections, water-borne diseases – and the longest for the addicted, to heroin, ‘solution’, alcohol. It is a kind of ‘field hospital’ for those wounded by poverty, migration and urban life; the first time homeless men have had access to medicine.

Public pity

The sight is both shocking and inspiring: people must exhibit their pain in public, but doctors devote their time to reaching out to the most vulnerable. The hope in the dulled eyes of addiction is palpable and immensely sad – resources for detoxification and long-term treatment are not available. No-one has an illusion that this provides a permanent answer, but it is an experiment unique in India.

'Begging is not dignified, but singing is'

Late evening. Close to the place where I stay, a homeless woman, perhaps in her forties, lives on the pavement. Dirty and dishevelled, wearing a torn jumper and skirt, she sits in an attitude of permanent grief, like an elderly child of limited understanding. She has been abandoned by her family to the mercy of the street, but is nevertheless roughly cared for. Protected against predators by her vulnerability – and probably by dirt and rags – she sits close to the underpass on the ring road, knees up to her chin, rocking to and fro. But she is rarely without food: a plate of dal, some rice, an orange; fed by workers in the small dhabas or by passers-by. She survives on public pity – that reservoir of fellow-feeling which, even in a hard and self-seeking city like Delhi, is never quite exhausted.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Homeless in Delhi

Leave your comment