Sleepless In Delhi On Christmas

The night shelters are a refuge for Delhi’s urban poor, crowded with stories of despair and hardship.

WrittenBy:Ishan Kukreti
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It was anything but a silent night at Epicuria food court on Christmas, under Nehru Place Metro Station, but it was a joyous sight. Strains of cheerful music leaked out of the compound and could be heard out all the way out on the road. Lights twinkled and the night was bright with neon.  

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Walk away from the metro station and towards Kalkaji, and everything changes. At the Nehru Place’s rain basera (night shelter), near the MTNL building, all traces of festivities faded away.

Inside a blue portable cabin, four men sat on mats, huddled in blankets to keep the chill away. “Some here are regulars, other come and go,” said Mukesh Kumar, the caretaker of the shelter. “We are expecting 7-8 people more. They are out working. They’ll be in by 11 pm.”

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Heera Mann, a daily wage labourer. Image by Ishan Kukreti

There are 198 night shelters in Delhi. The combined capacity of these shelters is 21,524. On colder nights, the occupancy increases. On Christmas this year, which was the coldest night of this year, rain basera around Delhi gave shelter to 10,701 homeless people, one of the highest figures this year. At Nehru Place too, there were 14 people.

One of those 14 is Heera Mann, who came to Delhi last year from Purnia, Bihar. Upon his arrival, he went straight to Kalkaji. “They provide free food there,” he said by way of explanation. Mann was a landless agricultural labourer back in Bihar and made approximately Rs 150 during harvesting season. “I am able to make Rs.300 here,” said Mann. “Around Rs150, I spend on food. The rest is savings.”

Rain basera have teams that rescue homeless people and provide them with the warmth of a bed. Citizens who want to help someone who is homeless can call on the helpline number (+91 8527898296) or reach out to the rescue team by installing the rain basera app.

These night shelters are managed by non-governmental organisations funded by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). The Nehru Place rain basera is managed by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), an NGO “working in the areas of health: Drugs, HIV-AIDS, Juveniles and for socio-economic development.” SPYM manages around 70 shelters in Delhi.

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Occupancy at the night shelters rises as the temperature drops. Rain basera, Nizamuddin Basti. Image by Ishan Kukreti

The rain basera in Nizamuddin Basti, near Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah is also managed by SPYM. It has an official capacity of 300. On Christmas night, it had 195 people and its facilities were so Spartan that it seemed almost like a concentration camp. People were sleeping on bunker beds and on the floor. Blankets seemed to be rationed. Many smelled of cheap alcohol or looked stoned.

This is one reason why the night shelters are not the first choice for all of the area’s homeless. One beggar, who was making his bed on the pavement outside Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, said, “Rain basera has all sorts of people: drunkards, junkies, thieves. Safety is a concern there.”

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Occupants of night shelters are provided blankets and mats. At Rain basera, Nizamuddin Basti, the occupants also enjoy entertainment facilities and free food. Image by Ishan Kukreti     

The Nizamuddin shelter is also one of the 10 chosen by the Delhi government to provide free food. “We provide food twice a day,” said Sushil Kumar, the caretaker. Today’s dinner has been served. It’s from 7-9 pm,” said Sushil Kumar, the caretaker. However, one of the occupants gestured that dinner wasn’t provided or at least he didn’t get any.

Fear of the authority runs rife in these shelters. One occupant named Madan, with tears streaming down his cheeks said, “They beat me. Why do they beat me?” The question turned out to be rhetorical and possibly repeated as no one answered him.

Most of the people who settle in for the night at the rain basera are migrants. Lallu, a daily wage labourer, held the sobbing Madan in his arms. Both came to Delhi from Madhya Pradesh. Lallu says he has been also a “blood donor” for 12 years.

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Every night shelter is supposed to provide 3 caretakers and 3 helpers round the clock. At Nizamuddin, only 2 were present.  Image by Ishan Kukreti

Hardship and uncertainty line the faces of all who settle in these shelters for the night. They’ve all left homes in different parts of India, in the hope of making a little extra money, and they struggle to adjust to life in the city and the piercing poverty that comes with it. “I do not want anyone to live the way I have lived. If you can do anything for these people (residents of the shelter), please do it,” Atakulla Ansari, a daily wage labourer said before going to his bunk.

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Image by Ishan Kukreti

Fariyad Hussain came to Delhi from West Bengal in 2013. He used to work at a tea plantation estate. A day’s labour there earned him Rs.90. In Delhi, he helps decorate sets at social functions and when there is work, he gets around Rs 350 a day. The work here is erratic, but the pay is on time. “At the plantation, although I was supposed to get Rs.90 everyday, it rarely happened. They’d hold our salary” he said. At the shelter, he can at least stay and eat free of cost when he cannot get work.    

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Most occupants spend the night at the shelter and leave to work or find work in the morning. Image by Ishan Kukreti

Manish Kumar was a construction supervisor who was working in Madhubani district, in Bihar. He says family problems and fate forced him to come to Delhi approximately five years back. Kumar said his identification documents were stolen in the shelter. “I don’t have anything in written, but orally I can tell you everything,” he said. He’s hoping to get new papers made.

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Proper identification documents is something that many occupants need. Image by Ishan Kukreti

These men are the invisible fulcrum of daily life in the capital. They mend roads, sell flowers, decorate parties, sit on pavements with weighing machines, and struggle to find a place for themselves in Delhi. Rain basera aren’t home, but they are the among the few places that offer shelter. And on a winter’s night, just that little bit of charity goes a long way.

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