It is a toss-up between living in flooded shanties and facing harassment on the street. Fifty-odd families of ragpickers who live in illegal shanties on the Yamuna floodplains find staying in their inundated homes safer than in “shelters” put up by the Delhi Government by the roadside in North East Delhi’s Usmanpur Gaon.

These ragpickers, who are unwilling to relocate to the higher ground, despite a threat to their life and belongings, claim their women and young girls are being harassed every day and they would rather put up with the floods than with the hounding.

“No one thinks about our safety. No one takes us seriously when we complain. In this big city, poor women have no dignity,” said Meera Devi, a ragpicker who has been asked to move to a shelter – a tarpaulin held together by strings – on the roadside.

Meera Devi, who has two girls, has been reluctant to move, for if she does, she will have to live on the pavement with no protection from unwanted attention. “We prefer staying in flooded houses, even though it is unsafe because if we move to the pavement, where the government wants us to, we are vulnerable to harassment. Men in inebriated state just walk in and misbehave with us. If we go to the police to complain, instead of helping us they send us away and allege we invited it,” she said.

Everyday problems that come with being poor – a garbage dump for home, no health care, little to eat – are aspects of her life that Phoolan Devi, also a ragpicker, seems to have acquiesced to, but when she talks about how unsafe she feels and how worried she remains about the safety of her daughters, her voice begins to quiver.

This group of ragpickers pays a monthly rent of Rs.1,000 for their illegal shanties. They are not part of the government’s rehabilitation programmes. With no proof of identity and no voice, they continue to remain “invisible”.

“These floods occur every year and the government should by now have a plan for relocation of these people who have been living on the riverbed for many years. Besides, in this city there is enough evidence of how unsafe women across all classes feel. These people deserve housing and they deserve security,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of Chintan, an environmental research and action group that works with these ragpickers.

In the absence of a policy for their rehabilitation, these ragpickers collect the waste from the households on behalf of the waste collectors who are employed by the municipality. While some get a retainer from the waste collectors, who are paid a monthly salary by the municipality or by the resident welfare associations, others have to make do with what they earn from the sale of waste.

Devising a strategy for rehabilitation of slum dwellers and policy for their safe existence is an area that the city government has been unsuccessful in, said Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research.

“As always and as usual, the government has failed in its responsibility to provide shelter to these people, leaving the young women vulnerable to sexual assault. These people have nowhere to go and are being forced to live in subhuman conditions, because there is no careful planning for their resettlement,” she pointed out.

Petitions for relocation and rehabilitation by the ragpickers to the local elected leaders have borne no results and the treat of eviction looms large.

Dunu Roy, director of the Hazards Centre, said the government should shoulder the blame for slum clusters and those squatting in the city, because it has failed to construct housing for the poor. “The Master Plan talks about 80 per cent of the workforce in the tertiary sector, which includes these ragpickers, yet does nothing for them. These people keep the economy alive with no support from the government. There is no plan, no policy for them and that is why they are forced to become squatters. The government just sees these slums as problems that must be removed,” he said.

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