Winter is a time of hard choices for the homeless poor in the nation's capital…

It is a harsh unforgiving winter for homeless people who survive Delhi's streets. Through long foggy nights, bleary-eyed with little sleep, they squat around tiny fires lit with dry leaves, twigs and torn clothes, desperately trying to keep out the chill. Many curl up together, sometimes under a single thin blanket, bony bodies pressed against each other, with stray dogs sliding in, all sharing body warmth. But we also encounter stiff sleeping forms of single lonely people, almost frozen in the cold. Every wintry night leaves a fresh toll of more bodies of anonymous dispensable people — rickshaw pullers, balloon sellers, women thrown to the streets by violent spouses, children who escaped abuse, abandoned old people — who could not hold out battle any further. There are no shelters of any kind for more than 90 per cent of over a hundred thousand men, women and children in the nation's capital, for whom the open sky is their only roof.

Entrepreneurs in the walled city around Jama Masjid have learned to profit from the failures of the State to provide for its most dispossessed citizens. They hire out quilts to homeless people at Rs. 10 a night, and mattresses for an additional Rs. 10s. They also occupy open tracts of government lands (where government instead could have located many shelters), on which they erect makeshift private ‘ shelters', with plastic sheet roofs but no walls. Under these they lay small cots with blankets and mattresses. These they rent out to homeless people who can afford to pay Rs. 30 a night. A bonus of sleeping in these privatised ‘shelters' is that the police are paid not to harass people who pay to sleep here.

Winter forces homeless people to make difficult choices. If you want the warmth of a quilt to keep out the cold, you may have to give up a meal. But research has established that people exposed to extreme temperatures require even more calories simply to maintain body temperature. We find Mohammed Shareef plying his cycle rickshaw late in the night looking for passengers. “I am hoping to earn another Rs. 20 so I can hire a quilt and mattress for the night. I earn Rs. 150 a day, sometimes less. Of this, I give Rs. 45 to the rickshaw owner. Each meal costs Rs. 40 rupees. I have to pay even for the water that I drink, and for the bath I take. Everything here is money. Sometimes I don't have any money to buy food. Sometimes I cannot hire a quilt, and it is hard to sleep.”

Looking out for each other

There are some homeless people who earn no money at all. We are surprised therefore to encounter mentally ill abandoned old women in Jama Masjid wrapped in hired quilts. People tell us that it is routine for other homeless people to contribute money each night so that they are able to rent quilts for the aged and disabled among them. “If we did not do this, they would not be able to live through these winter nights,” they say in a matter-of-fact way.

There is a woman they fear would die the night we are there. They uncover a bundle in a hired quilt to reveal a woman who is obviously starving, and seems frighteningly close to death. The daily wage workers who sleep at Jama Masjid had spotted her a few days earlier. She had walked a few steps and then collapsed. They fed her, but she could not speak. A relief worker Deepak Das, who is with us, calls the mobile police van. To their credit, they arrive promptly, and agree to transport her to a government hospital. The presence of Deepak, who has fought hospital staff to accept many destitute homeless people, ensures that they admit her. But we walk away with the cold unspoken knowledge that most people in her place in the many harsh streets of Delhi would simply die.

We meet a middle-aged homeless man in Nizamuddin whose main vocation is to dispose off unclaimed dead bodies. Sometimes he is informed by the police; at other times, other homeless people call him to take away rotting human bodies from the streets. He tries to enquire about the religious faith of the dead person. If the person was Hindu, he transports the body to cremation grounds and cremates it; if Muslim, then to the cemetery. Local people, mostly homeless, pool money to pay for these last rites, and if there is some money left over, this is what enables him to eat. These winter nights were some of the coldest that Delhi had witnessed in a decade, and he recalls collecting 10 bodies in a single night. There is rarely a post-mortem, and many deaths are not even recorded. The lives of the destitute are extraordinarily cheap in our land.

One of my young colleagues is Tarique, who spends all his winter nights driving through Delhi's streets, quietly giving blankets to homeless people, often sitting with them to share a word. He is badly shaken by what he sees. Outside Bangla Saheb Gurudwara, he finds a homeless man who is so desperately cold that he has bent his body, as if offering namaaz, and burrows the grounds to bury his head in it for some heat, crying out in pain. “I loved winter as a child,” he tells me. “But now it terrifies me, because I know what it does to homeless people.”

We find that a large number of people were rendered homeless because governments demolished their hutments, and never provided them alternatives. There are 250 such families who sleep in a public park in Nizamuddin. One of these families is headed by Kusoom, who migrated from Assam decades ago in search of work. She built over time a small shanty but this was pulled down many years ago, and since then she has slept in the park, summer, winter or monsoons. It is difficult to live as a woman alone on the streets, therefore like many single homeless women in Nizamuddin, she has accepted a series of homeless men as transient partners, each of whom left her wounded in body and spirit and sometimes with children. She tries to find work as domestic help in people's homes, but can rarely earn more than Rs. 600 every month, and “who can live on this?” She and her children often beg and eat at the dargah. But she spends a precious Rs. 120 every month to send her son to a private school, and is preparing to send her daughter.

Worse scenarios

Many homeless people, including children, live through the rigours of the cold and rain by using drugs. You find them glassy-eyed, even dazed, impervious to the suffering, loneliness and shame of fighting nature and an uncaring city. We ask homeless people which the cruellest is among the many extreme seasons in Delhi. Many say it is winter, because it threatens life. But others say the monsoons are even worse. When it rains at night, it is impossible to sleep, or cook, and their few belongings are soaked.

In the midst of all of this, we meet a woman who has lived for 17 years on a traffic island in Nizamuddin, under a plastic sheet. But her life became bearable when she adopted an abandoned street boy and elected to raise him even though she was herself utterly destitute. He is grown now, and is more devoted to her than any child she could have carried in her womb.

And Shareef, the cycle rickshaw driver adds, “This is the story of poor. But I work very hard, and therefore, however difficult my life is, I know I live it with dignity.”