Pavement dwellers deal with the cold wave, unaware of night shelters

The fog on Ring Road near AIIMS is pierced by the headlights of cars zooming by. And also by the smattering of little fires that dot the sidewalks.

Families huddle around them, wrapping their blankets tightly around themselves while they gather their belongings strewn on the footpath. Laxmi, with husband, child, mother-in-law in tow, is busy in preparation of another cold night. Fruit seller by day, Laxmi is surprised when asked about night shelters.

“Is there any thing like that? Where you can sleep at night?” she asks. She muses that if they had known beforehand, they would have gone, at least for the sake of her young son.

Pandit Lakshmikant Shukla and his wife, Sangeeta, however, have made the street their home even though they are quick enough to give directions to the nearest night shelter. A meagre menagerie of goods, including pan masala and sachets of washing powder, lies on a piece of cloth before them.

Originally from Machali Gaon in Jaunpur district, U.P., they had come for the treatment of their son in AIIMS. Eventually the boy lost his life to cancer and identification documents attached to his treatment papers were lost in the aftermath. Pointing to Yusuf Sarai, they say, “The night shelter there costs Rs.150 per night for both of us. From where do they expect us to pay? On top of that the police don’t let us sleep here after the public outrage over the Delhi gang rape since we have papers from the municipal authorities”. Despair is writ large on their face.

The night constable in that area, Kumbharambh Sipahi, has a different spin on the tale though. According to him, all the pavement dwellers are fully aware of night shelters but prefer to stay put.

“Everybody knows that the government has put up these shelters. But they don’t like being separated from their families. Also there is the matter of packing up all the stuff they have to sell during the day. They like to keep things close,” he says.

In the posh lanes of Saket, the disparity is evident once the night sets in. Guddi and Chetri are a little wary of talking to strangers. Beggars at Chirag Dilli signal during the day, Guddi, with a child wrapped across her chest, tries to gather the kids running around. Chetri coughs uncontrollably. From Tonk, Rajasthan, they shifted to Delhi in search of employment and also to further Chetri’s medical treatment at a lower cost. Both plans have gone for a toss.

The kids however animatedly tell stories of how they are woken up in the middle of the night by policemen. “Sometimes they take a shawl or something from us and leave us alone. Otherwise, we are not left with any other option than to go and find a place in Khirki to sleep. And with five kids among us, that is not easy,” Guddi adds.

Lack of awareness coupled with an aversion to leaving their families increases the amount of people preferring to sleep on the pavement, facing the full lash of the Delhi cold wave, rather than spend a night in shelters.

At the end of the day, battered by cold winds, they could do with a little compassion.