Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Delhi's homeless fight bitter cold and apathy

By Gayathri Sreedharan
BBC News, Delhi

Homeless in Delhi
It's a struggle to remain warm in the winter nights

Shetty Chauhan, 60, died on the night of 12 January near a busy traffic roundabout in central Delhi.

He had been ill with a heavy cold for eight days.

Sitting on rubble next to his body just hours after he died, his wife Kamla explained that he had stopped eating and drinking tea prior to his death.

When an ambulance took Shetty away, he was dressed in a light sweater and a pair of cotton pyjamas and wrapped in a thin blanket - hardly enough to beat temperatures plummeting at night to as low as 5C.

Kamla, homeless in Delhi
Kamla's husband died from cold

This is the second death at Delhi's Pusa Road since 22 December when the civic authorities razed to the ground a temporary shelter for the homeless.

The first casualty was Bheema, 36, a balloon seller who lived with his mother at the roundabout, on the night of 31 December.

There are about 50 homeless people living here - they include families with children, some with infants barely a year old.

'No warning'

For the last three years, the Delhi government has built temporary shelters for the homeless at Pusa road.

But a few weeks later the tents were brought down forcibly and, this group of homeless people alleges, without warning.

And the deaths have made them angry, with many of them spilling out on to the road to block traffic.

The protesters begin to wail loudly and chant: "Down with the Delhi government, down with the police."

Their voices are hoarse, noses running. And their screams are short lived, as it gets tougher to shout as the night gets colder.

Both the day and night time temperatures across northern India have plummeted several degrees below what is normal for this time of year.

While the cold in Delhi can hardly compare to that in northern Europe or America, Indian homes are unprepared for the winter without central heating - a regular feature in buildings in the West.

For the homeless, the situation is worse - media reports say this winter more than 350 people have died of the cold in north India.


Add to this Delhi's drive to spruce itself up before the Commonwealth Games in October.

Assistant Commissioner with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Rakesh Mehta, is in charge of demolitions in central Delhi.

Delhi fog
North India has been unusually cold and foggy this winter

He says he is helpless over the plight of the homeless at Pusa Road.

"We tried to rehabilitate them. We asked them to move to a shelter that is just 500 yards away from where they live now, but they refused to budge.

"On the other hand, we have orders from the Delhi government to "clean up" before the Games. What could we do? We had no other option [than to demolish their shelter]."

Both Bheema and Shetty have left behind ageing women who are hardly capable of fending for themselves - they do not work and were dependent on the men of the family.

Nearly all the adults and some of the children here sell balloons and trinkets at the traffic lights, work in roadside tea stalls or beg to earn a living.

Their average wages per day are around 50 rupees (about $1).

'In shock'

"Bheema took very good care of his mother. He would ensure she got a hot meal, had a cup of tea. He would bring firewood to burn at night in order to keep her warm.

"Now she is in shock. She won't talk to anyone, she doesn't eat or drink. There is nobody else left to take care of her. She is 75 and we are worried she'll fall ill too," says 36-year-old Dashrath.

He had known Bheema since the time they left their native Karnataka state to find work in Delhi after their village was struck by famine.

Homeless in Delhi
Among the homeless are many young children

Dashrath himself has tuberculosis - he is too weak to travel for treatment, so he waits for a weekly mobile hospital to drive by and give him free medication.

A little distance away, the homeless have gathered around a large fire, built with old clothes.

A young man explains: "None of us had enough money for firewood tonight."

A day after Shetty's death, the Delhi high court asked the civic authorities to explain why shelters for the homeless had been demolished.

The court asked for a formal reply by 18 January.

The homeless, however, say they are the last on the list of priorities for the government.

For them, it's as much a struggle to keep warm on a cold winter night as it is to fight the government apathy.

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