At 6.45 a.m., Hari Singh, a labourer from Bihar residing in the jhuggis along the railway tracks at Kishan Ganj station in Sarai Rohilla, returned to his shanty holding an empty two-litre bottle in his left hand.
Hari had crossed the railway line on foot to reach the last of the six tracks to find a less crowded area to relieve himself. His four-year-old son had followed him, unaware of the danger he was putting himself into.
A public convenience with 10 toilets was constructed in the area over two years ago, said the jhuggi dwellers.
Still, most men and some women preferred the railway tracks to relieve themselves. When asked why, they said the toilet complex is located over a kilometre away.
“In the morning, it is practically impossible to walk for a km to answer a pressing call of nature. Also, there is a huge queue outside the toilets as the jhuggis have over 1,000 residents,” said Hari.
The condition of the toilets, he added, is “terrible”.
Lucky, a 22-year-old resident of a jhuggi near the railway lines in Gulabi Bagh, close to Sabzi Mandi railway station, shared a similar problem. “There are 26 toilets — 13 each for men and women— in our area. But most of them do not have doors and taps. The caretaker-cum-cleaner does not come regularly so there are days when the toilets cannot be used at all,” he said.
Problem for women
For women jhuggi dwellers along the railway tracks the problem is bigger: they have to relieve themselves and also bathe, so most of them use the public toilets nearby.
“Women avoid relieving themselves in the open no matter how far they have to walk, but the toilets are shut after 10 p.m.... they are then forced to use the tracks or the forest area nearby,” said Lucky’s mother Rekha, who runs a small grocery store.
She alleged that the caretaker sometimes asks for money to let them use the toilet.
“He usually does not take money from the jhuggi dwellers, but a few weeks ago, he asked for ₹300 a month from me because five members of my family and sometimes my relatives use the toilet,” she said.
Rekha’s neighbour Sarita Sharma (26) shed light on the incidents of crime, especially against women, along the railway lines that go unreported.
Visibly irritated about going to the forest area after crossing the railway tracks at night, she said: “It is frustrating because it is extremely unsafe. The men from our jhuggis and also the anti-social elements living in our area go to the same forest to relieve themselves at night. They tease women, use foul language and at times, pull the women just for fun,” she claimed.
Crime and drugs
Women are not the only ones troubled by the criminals loitering around the railway tracks, the men are scared too.
Sandeep (20), a resident of Gulabi Bagh jhuggis, said many men residing in the cluster are snatchers who are constantly looking for vulnerable targets.
“These snatchers do not necessarily live here but spend a lot of time near the tracks. They attack passengers standing at the doors when the trains stop here before Sabzi Mandi station,” said Sandeep.
Recalling an incident which allegedly happened last week, he said, a resident of the jhuggi was robbed of his mobile phone at knifepoint. “He was walking on the side of the railway lines when two drug addicts stopped him at knifepoint and robbed him. They ran across the lines and handed over the phone to their associates waiting there. The duo was caught but the phone could not be recovered,” Sandeep said.
When asked why such matters are not reported to the police, the jhuggi dwellers said they were scared of getting attacked by drugs addicts at night.
“They [drug addicts] have weapons. What if they come and kill us at night?”
Drug peddling and abuse along the railway lines is another menace the jhuggi dwellers and junior-level railway staff face on a daily basis.
“Rail lines across the city are infamous for sale of drugs, especially smack and weed [ganja]. The peddlers do not choose the railway stations but the tracks which cross residential areas and have negligible police presence,” said a resident of a jhuggi along the Kishan Ganj rail lines. He claimed that several drug peddlers operate along the Kishan Ganj rail lines and are active post-sunset and early morning.
A railways staffer blamed the jhuggi dwellers for the filth on the tracks and said that despite repeated warnings and suggestions “no one listens”.
“They relieve themselves behind the jhuggis if not on the tracks, collect the waste in a polybag and throw it on the tracks. They cook, clean utensils and even wash clothes on the tracks,” said Pritam Dutt, master craftsman at Kishan Ganj railway station.
He alleged that some anti-social elements residing in the jhuggis steal copper wires attached to a device near the railway lines that sends signals about the functionality of the tracks.
“Absence of the wires makes the tracks non-functional,” he said.
Talking about the dangers of living along the railway lines, Poonam, a 30-year-old woman from Rajasthan who has been living in the Kishan Ganj jhuggis for the last three decades, said her children roam near the tracks all day and it is impossible for her to keep a watch every minute.
“I have two children aged two and three . The tracks are five steps from my jhuggi. It is very tough to explain to them that they have to look both sides before crossing. So many people have died in front of my eyes,” she said.
Recalling an incident that happened a month ago, she said a couple was fighting after the wife served cold food to her drunk husband.
The man went to the track to throw the food and got hit by a train; he lost an arm and a leg.
But crossing the tracks is “necessary”, the residents claimed, due to scarcity of water. Minti Devi from Gulabi Bagh jhuggis said that the handpumps near the slums have stopped working and the water tanker is two km away.
“We cross the tracks and bring water from the mosque close by. We do not have any other option,” she said.
When asked why they do not leave the jhuggis which are illegally set up, the residents claimed they have nowhere else to go and have got habituated to staying in the area.
“We have been removed so many times but we come back because this is where we have lived since our childhood. We know the dangers but it is also difficult to relocate to other jhuggis because people already living there do not allow us; it is not easy,” Poonam said.
Not all jhuggis along the railway tracks are prone to crimes or burdened with problems. There is at least one in the Capital — near Tilak Bridge railway station —which appears to be setting an example for the rest.
The residents here, mostly washermen on one side and migrant labourers on the other, make sure that no one trespasses on the tracks and have taken measures to prevent cases of snatching and drug abuse.
“We got speed breakers constructed to be able to catch snatchers. We also keep a check on people trying to scale the boundary wall to reach the tracks. We make sure that people use foot overbridge to reach Bengali market and not the tracks,” said Mohan Kumar (63), who resides near Dhobi Ghat No. 28, adding that if they see suspicious persons around, they immediately inform the police.
“We are responsible citizens. We should protect ourselves and not depend on anyone,” said Mohan’s brother Pritam Lal (78).
The labourers residing on the other side, however, have a grouse.
“We are not allowed to use the public toilets constructed on the side of the washermen. They think they are superior to us. Now we have public toilets constructed on our side, but earlier we were using the tracks to relieve ourselves,” said Arjun, a 35-year-old migrant labourer from Bihar.
According to data provided by the Government Railway Police, in 2017, three persons lost their lives on railway tracks every day either because of train accidents or suicide or natural death.
In 2018, the total number of deaths stood at 688 till August 7.
Talking about the possible reasons for such accidents, Deputy Commissioner Police (Railways) Dinesh Kumar Gupta told The Hindu that people avoid using the foot overbridges and subways and walk on the tracks instead. There is also scarcity of signage across the railway stations for people coming from outside Delhi.
“There is a flaw in the planning and infrastructure of FOBs. They are mostly constructed where they are not required; at least a km away from the required spot. Fencing across the railway lines is also a must to avert accidents,” he said.
Mr. Kumar conducted a check at all railways stations across the city which fall under the jurisdiction of seven railway police stations (45 district police stations) and observed that boundary walls were damaged, CCTV cameras were not working, frisking of people was not being done and lights were insufficient.
Joint Commissioner of Police (Transport Range) Atul Katiyar shared the observations in a letter to Divisional Railway Manager, Northern Railway, in August.
In the letter, he mentioned that platform gates at several railway stations were unmanned, people were entering without any checking, baggage scanners were not covered with CCTV cameras.
“Undesirable tall grass had grown on both sides of adjoining areas of the railway station [Hazrat Nizamuddin], which can harbour anti-social elements and criminals,” the letter read. Similar observations were made about all railway stations in the city.
Sources said that no response has been received from the DRM yet.
Inadequate deployment of force at railway stations is also a concern, Mr. Kumar said. A total of 294 officers are deployed across seven stations at present and approximately four lakh people enter the stations every day, he said.