Suresh Chaubey has been a wanderer since he can remember. Thirty years ago he walked out of his village in Bhind and boarded a train to Bhopal. He has been on the tracks ever since. Suresh is one among an estimated 25,000 floating population of homeless people in Bhopal.
“I am not stuck here,” he says. “Every two or three weeks, I board a train and go where it takes me. I have been to all the pilgrimages. I am not married and I beg for a living. In the beginning it felt bad, but now I take it as god’s kindness,” he says.
When in Bhopal, Suresh — who is physically challenged — sleeps in front of the canteen at Bhopal Junction’s platform 1. “The cops only make us leave when a senior officer, celebrity or politician visits. We then shift to the other side of the station. They (police) don’t take anything from us,” he adds.
Mool Chand, from Raisen, lives with his family of three beside platform 5. “We are used to the humiliation of being woken up at night by police. Thankfully children are not raped here. However, many young boys and girls get into prostitution. When girls get pregnant, they suffer a lot until they give birth at a government hospital,” he says.
Like Mool Chand, most of the squatters don’t have a ration card and aren’t on the electoral list. Pavement households survive on Rs. 100 to Rs. 200 a day earned from begging and odd jobs. Most families have one or two meals a day. Some eat at a charitable kitchen in Chuna Bhatti, around nine km away.
Bhoop Singh and his friend feast on leftovers from a hotel. They even invite this reporter to join them. “The fights at home were too much for me, so I left. It is hard here, especially during rains. But on days like these when we get leftovers, it is like a festival,” he says.
More than a third of the 100-odd squatters this reporter spotted at the station are disabled, and less than a fourth is minors. Most of them have no identity papers and have never been counted in a census. One of the lucky few with an identity card is ascetic Narayan Nath, who has a Jammu and Kashmir Police pass for the Amarnath Yatra.
The government has been regularly granting pattas to slums, in the run up to the elections. But street dwellers, not on the voter rolls, don’t matter as much.
Eight years ago, Jamuna Farkale started working with the runaway children on Bhopal Junction. “We initially started with boys and later with girls. Both sets of children have their own challenges and the causes for which they leave home differ,” she says. Jamuna’s job is to spot runaway kids, counsel them and get them to cooperate with the police to return home or go to a shelter.
She accompanied a joint team of voluntary organisations, ActionAid and Bachpan, for an interaction with the homeless as part of the ‘India Under the Stars’ initiative on the intervening night of October 1 and 2. She runs into a girl — wearing heavy make up and chewing zarda . Jamuna asks her not to go into the night, but she insists that she is only going to her mother’s house. Her prospective customer keeps an eye on her from a distance.
“She came here as a child. She’s less than 18, but has already had a child who died. She has been sold several times. When motivated, many girls agree to move into shelters or homes. But those already in too deep rarely leave,” says Jamuna.
“I would like to learn some trade and start a business,” says the girl. “But you know our life, It’s tough,” she tells Jamuna before leaving.