The 21-day lockdown may have deprived Rambhai, a daily wage labourer, of an income but not a bed and blanket. A resident of Haryana, he works in Delhi and for nearly a year has been sleeping at one of the “porta cabins”, a blue prefabricated hall that houses about 75 people.
Among the shelters managed by the Delhi government are 115 such cabins. Each of them has a common television; mattresses and blankets are made available. Other than the cabins, there are 89 buildings and 19 tents that constitute the city’s 223 shelters. Together, they have the capacity to house 18,478 of the national capital’s homeless people.
“In the last few days since the lockdown, fewer people are being allowed because we have been asked to keep the mattresses at a greater distance from each other,” said Mr. Rambhai, who had just finished lunch.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Saturday announced that the government had made arrangements to feed at least 4 lakh poor people beginning Sunday, and free meals were being given at night shelters. It was also part of the government’s attempt to dissuade people from travelling and possibly spreading the coronavirus infection.
Because of the lockdown drying up jobs and the savings of many of daily wagers dwindling, several of them took to walking on foot in an attempt to go home to their villages in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. With buses and trains stalled, many thousands are stuck in the city.
A total of 588 government schools had also been modified into centres where the homeless and poor could be fed, the Delhi CM has said.
According to records from the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, there has been increased occupancy in the night shelters.
On March 22, night occupancy in the shelters was 7,671 and this increased to 9,806 on March 25 — the first night of the lockdown — and as of the latest report on Sunday, occupancy rose to 10,784.
“Generally, night shelters witness low occupancy during summers,” said Rajiv Bansal, who is involved in the management of the shelter at Nigambodh Ghat, “But due to the lockdown, we are seeing an upsurge compared to what is normal for this time of the year. Many also see this as a source of meals.”
Food is delivered in a truck and served by a few policemen and social workers. It is mostly a large serving of khichdi , and occasionally the menu changes to puri s and a bowl of vegetables. With social distancing norms in effect, residents are expected to line-up inside chalk circles. “Most people don’t understand. There is enough food but people continue to crowd into each other,” said Changan Singh, also a daily wage worker, “The other day, we were given masks but not everybody complies.”
At one of the city’s oldest shelters, near the Bangla Sahib gurudwara, Kuldeep Yadav, who works as a labour contractor, is miffed. “There is no provision for those who are stranded. These shelters are permanently occupied by a few though the rules say they are to clear out by night. We get by because of food from generous patrons and not the government,” he said.
The gurudwara, which feeds several thousands of people in a day, has now shut its doors. However, ever so often, a car or a van pulls over and a donor distributes bread, butter, pulses and rice. “There is a gentleman who comes with a 100 packets every morning at 4 a.m. We are getting by because there is kindness around, too,” said Mr. Yadav.