Slum dwellers struggle in Delhi

Laxmi has been a widow for the last 40 years, but this is the closest she has come to despair. Three months ago, a cataract operation forced her to quit her job as a domestic worker. Now, the COVID-19 lockdown prevents her from getting any work. And without a ration card, her meagre pension of ₹2,000 per month leaves her flirting with starvation.

“I applied for a ration card more than a year ago and they gave me this parchi,” says the 66-year old, showing a faded and much-folded piece of paper. “But they told me there is a quota for rations in Delhi, so I cannot get on the ration list until someone else has dropped out.”

The 66-year old lives in a tiny windowless room in Jagdamba Camp, a basti in south Delhi’s Sheikh Sarai area. Her corrugated metal roof has failed to keep out the unseasonal rain, leaving her bed and the broken concrete floor damp and musty.

“I only have my daughter, who is also a widow with five children of her own to bring up, so I can’t expect much from her. Sometimes, she gives me a few rotis,” she says.

While the spotlight has been on the plight of migrant workers hit by the COVID-19 lockdown, there are lakhs of long time residents in Delhi’s bastis and slum settlements who do not have ration cards either and cannot benefit from the government’s promise of a free and increased ration allocation.

Jagdamba Camp has 2,000 registered voters, with a total population about triple that number. Crammed into tiny flats linked by narrow, twisting alleys, and sharing communal toilets, the residents are aware that any COVID-19 infection could sweep unchecked through the basti.

Shanti Devi tries to keep her three grandchildren indoors due to the fear of the virus. However, her son, the family’s sole earner who gets about ₹300 per day as a labourer, has lost his livelihood due to the lockdown and the family has no ration card or pension. The family still has to pay ₹3,500 rent each month for their two-room home.

“We want to protect the children from this disease they are talking about, but what is the use if they die of hunger instead?” she asks.

The family cannot even apply for a ration card, as they do not have any residence proof or any identity documents.

“The house owner is scared that if we get documents proving we live here, we will claim the place for ourselves. I do not have any Aadhaar or voter ID either,” says the widow.

Her granddaughter Priyanka studies in Class 2 at the local government primary school, where she received a daily lunch under the mid-day meal scheme, until the lockdown closed the classrooms. The Delhi government is yet to implement the Supreme Court order to continue providing children with either cooked meals or dry ration through the lockdown period.

With 1.3 lakh of the Capital’s population living in such slum settlements, while there are only 71 lakh ration card holders, the Right to Food campaign estimates that 50-60 lakh of the city’s poor — both migrants and others — do not have access to the free foodgrain that has become a lifeline to survival at this time.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promised that ration would be provided “for all who need it”, through a process of e-ration coupons. However, as 27-year old Shibbu discovered on Thursday, the application process does not take ground realities into account.

“The government said you can apply through the website, but I don’t know how to use it,” she says. Even with help from Right to Food activist Amrita Johri, she was unable to navigate the application form, which has 25 compulsory questions to fill, including an electricity bill and Aadhaar card, documents that many in the basti do not have. “I kept waiting all day for the message to come on my phone that I had the coupon, but it never came,” says Ms. Shibbu.

By Friday, the website had been simplified, but still required an Aadhaar number for every member of the household, a family photograph, and a smartphone to download the coupon.

“These are impossible requirements for most people in these bastis. This is why we are demanding universal ration for the next three months, so that no one is excluded,” said Ms. Johri.

Just outside Jagdamba Camp, on the pavements that lie across from the DDA flats of Sheikh Sarai, live those who cannot even afford to live inside the basti. Munni Devi is a 79-year old widow who lives with her grandchildren in a shack made of plywood covered with a tarp. Her eldest grandson runs a small chai shop on the pavement, earning about ₹250 a day.

“Since the bandh [lockdown], the police come around twice a day to make sure everything is closed down. Without that money, how will we eat?” she asks, holding on to a rickety old walker. “I have no ration card, my pension has not yet come, so we must depend on the goodwill of others,” she says, pointing to the just completed meal of bhindi given by a nearby vegetable vendor with a few rotis.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 8:10:27 PM |

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