New Delhi: Outside night shelter number 101, at Yamuna Pushta near the Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground in Delhi, a man lay on the sidewalk of a deserted street, scarcely moving. Flies collected near his face as a crowd of migrant labourers watched.
“Can you tell if he is alive or dead? This is what happens when you let us starve. He had been ill for many days and has not eaten,” said one of the labourers who wanted a place at the shelter to stay.
On Tuesday, the Narendra Modi government announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus. But with nowhere to go, thousands of daily-wage labourers and the homeless have gathered at night shelters for food and a place to sleep.
The streets of Delhi over the past few days have been desolate save for lines of homeless people and migrant workers hoping to feed themselves through langars and feeding drives.
“On the one hand, what the government has done is a good thing — if this illness is as bad as they say then a lockdown seems like a solution. But it’s the kind of solution that suits the rich who can stay home. Where are the poor going to go?” Mukesh, 40, asked. He cleans up after weddings to earn a living. “We will go where the food is, and the government is doing what little it can to supply us with it. But if we move, we’re beaten by the police. Is it fair? We’re only trying to survive.”
Pregnant women forced to stay put
At the Commercial Building of Sadar Bazar, some 400 homeless people and workers doing menial jobs were locked into night shelter number 28 when ThePrint visited Thursday evening.
Inside the facility, men, women, and children had gathered at the gate and were shaking it. “The police told us to stay inside or we would get beaten up,” said 18-year-old Dev, who sells mobile parts for a living.
Among the women was a pregnant Chandni, 20, wife of a labourer who earns Rs 300-400 a day. “Tomorrow, I will complete nine months of my pregnancy. I’m due any day now,” she said from behind the locked gate, holding her swollen belly. “Do they expect me to give birth here? We have been caged without food.”
Chandni, like everyone else in the facility, had not seen a doctor since the lockdown was announced. She would go to a free clinic at Lady Hardinge hospital in Connaught Place for regular consultations but hasn’t been able to follow up for the past five days.
“Our income has stopped and no one has come to feed us, either. I haven’t eaten properly. How am I going to give birth?” Chandni wondered.
The families in this facility — including at least three pregnant women — had gone without food for three days before a ration of atta and dal was delivered to them Thursday night. No one has explained to the families exactly what the coronavirus is, the importance of social distancing, and why the government has taken the measures it has.
“Beyond the name, we don’t know what it is,” said 60-year-old Saholi, trying to soothe a crying baby. “All I know is that this child has not eaten. We have breast fed her, but if mothers are not eating, how will they produce milk?”
At a small slum settlement, Bela Gaon, behind Raj Ghat, 21-year-old Shabnam is six months pregnant and has not been able to get herself checked.
“I was asked by my local clinic last week to go to the Kasturba Hospital for a check-up. I have enough medicines to last me 10 to 12 days, but the lockdown happened before I could go,” she said. “Now, every time we venture out, the police shunts us back and tells us we can’t pass.”
Supplies running thin
The Aam Aadmi Party government had Wednesday announced that night shelters would double up as feeding centres for the poor.
On Friday, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted that the government would use the 224 shelters across the capital and 325 government schools to feed at least 4 lakh people.
We are also enhancing capacity to make sure no one goes hungry during the lockdown
Until yday we were feeding 20k people in 224 shelters
From today we will feed 2 L people through an addl network of 325 Delhi govt schools
Tomorrow onwards we will be able to feed 4 lakh people.
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) March 27, 2020
But supplies have been erratic, said Santosh Jha, who manages the night shelters in both Yamuna Pushta and Sadar Bazar. “We’re having huge difficulties getting the raw materials either to give as ration or to cook and distribute. We need bulk quantities that are not easily available since the lockdown, and most places are closed,” he says. “We will try to provide milk for the mothers and children in Sadar Bazar, but there is no availability.”
The Delhi Police estimates 5,000 to 10,000 people are occupying the seven to eight night shelters in Yamuna Pushta, each of which have an average capacity of 225 people. Of these, Jha said an average of between 4,000-7,000 are fed, depending on the availability of supplies.
At Raj Ghat, a local ration store has run out of all its essential supplies and Bela Gaon has stayed hungry.
“I run a small shop but my supplies ran out soon after the lockdown was announced. The last time I tried to venture out, the routes were completely barricaded and I was prevented from going to the bigger supply store to bring back supplies,” said Jamal, the shop owner. “Everyone in this village is running thin on supplies, if they haven’t finished already.”
Kamal, the pradhan of Bela Gaon, said, “The government has said we should proceed to the nearest night shelter for food. But how do we do that when the police are out on the street with strict orders not to let anyone pass? We will surely perish this way.”
The Delhi Police, however, denied the charges.
“These are baseless allegations. The police teams on ground have been sensitised, given clear instructions on how to handle the situation. They have been told that no one should be stopped from accessing essential services,” a senior police officer said. “In fact, we have streamlined the movement of these migrant workers in this area very well. The police have informed them on when the food will be distributed and have asked them to congregate at that location only at the time when food arrives. This was done to ensure minimum movement in the area. Police have been advising them to remain indoors.”
“The police have also been feeding people. We are doing our level best to facilitate everyone,” the officer added.