Delhi’s homeless struggle in near-freezing temperatures as cold spell sweeps India
Updated 54 minutes ago
At least 100 people have been killed in a cold spell sweeping across India, and near freezing temperatures in the capital are making life almost impossible for people living on the streets.
But as Stephanie March discovers, helping the city’s homeless isn’t a straightforward task.
Sitting on a tarpaulin and covered in blankets, 12-year-old Gobind massages his sick mother’s arms as she shivers in the cold.
Since coming from the impoverished north-Indian state of Uttar Pradesh a year-and-a-half ago, he and his family have been sleeping on the footpath outside the AIIMS hospital in South Delhi because of his mother’s medical condition.
“My mother has a respiratory problem,” he said.
“Even in the winter we have to stay here near the hospital.”
While Gobind watches over his mother, his aunt begins making her bed for the night.
She unfolds several cardboard boxes and lays down on top of them, pulling up two thin blankets to cover her.
Around her people have pulled their blankets up over their faces and heads.
The pavement is littered with brightly-coloured, mummified bodies.
Most of them have come from interstate for medical treatment, but are unable to afford accommodation in the city.
While it’s impossible to know how many people are living on the street in the Indian capital, charity groups say the number is probably around 100,000.
Charity groups say about 100 people have died of exposure in India’s north in the last week.
In a desperate move to protect the city’s homeless people from the bitterly cold winter the Delhi Government has started using abandoned buses as temporary shelters.
The first of 200 buses to be deployed across the city have been placed outside the AIIMS hospital, 50 metres from Gobind and his family.
He says he tried to get his family on one of buses earlier in the night.
“There is no place to stay there today, they are all filled up,” he said.
Over at the bus an elderly man with a patch over one eye looks longingly through the back passenger door, he moves to walk up the stairs, but the social workers catch him.
“Sorry uncle, it is full,” they tell him.
Ram Shri is one of the lucky ones and has been allocated a spot on the bus.
Until tonight she and her ill brother had been sleeping on the pavement.
“At least in here we are safe from the morning dew,” he said.
“In here, my brother is more relaxed.”
Aid groups have praised the initiative, urging the government to move quickly to mobilise the other available buses.
“It is a very good idea because it is a medium we can provide them a home, a shelter where they can survive in such chilly winds,” said Anam Qayium, a social worker with the NGO, Prerna.
Helping the homeless in Delhi isn’t always straightforward.
With the buses full, armed with a pile of blankets Anam Qayium and her team head to a nearby traffic island beneath an underpass where a dozen people are sleeping.
They try to convince them to come to stay in their permanent shelter; most refuse, but they happily take the blankets.
Away from the group Anam spots another lump covered in cloth and expects to find a person sleeping underneath, but instead she discovers something else – a pile of brand new, neatly folded blankets – probably given to the beggars by other charities or the government.
Anam says they will probably go and sell them at the market – that they are ‘professional beggars’.
“It is just a medium for them to earn money and they are just misusing what we are giving to them,” she said.
“They are not appreciating it – they are not, you know, thankful to us for what we are doing but they are just taking and taking.”
It’s hard to know in Delhi who is truly needy and who is not, but in this extremely cold weather social workers like Anam are leaving nothing to chance.
She and her team head off with their pile of blankets to find the next group of homeless.