Struggle for survival: Delhi’s poor fight the cold

January 4th, 2010 - 6:49 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 4 (IANS) Wrapping a thin shawl around her bony frame, Amoli sat shivering under a flyover in south Delhi, holding her baby close and trying to light a fire. While those better off zipped past her in comfortable cars or wrapped in heavy woollens, for this young, homeless mother, surviving the bone chilling cold everyday is a struggle.
“It’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate the cold. I can still manage, but I am worried about my child,” said Amoli, who sells trinkets by the roadside for a living.

To shield herself and her child from the cold wave that has been sweeping through the capital the past few days, Amoli gathers paper bags, newspapers, twigs and other odds to light a small fire at night.

“I sell my stuff near this flyover, and there are others who do the same in the vicinity. In the evening we all gather under this flyover, light a fire and huddle around it. But it is exceptionally cold today, so I have lit a small fire now,” she added.

Often barefoot, sometimes wearing a thin sweater or a threadbare shawl - for Delhi’s poor and homeless, surviving the harsh winters is a big challenge.

Raghu Kumar, a night watchman who stays in a slum in south Delhi, said: “I work in a well-to-do neighbourhood and I constantly hear people complaining about the bitter cold. Often I feel like laughing at them - one should come and see life in the slums to see how we battle the cold everyday.”

“During the day we still manage, but at night the cold is unbearable. We light small bonfires with firewood, but to have a good night’s sleep, alcohol does the trick,” he said.

According to NGOs, Delhi has approximately 140,000 homeless people. However, only five to seven percent of them manage to find refuge in the night shelters put up by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).

Paramjeet Kaur of the Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), which works for the city’s homeless, said it has recently started a nationwide campaign for the homeless peoples’ right to shelter.

“The campaign fights for citizenship rights of the urban poor, like identity cards. Lack of an identity lands these people in jails, deprives them of healthcare and basic amenities,” Kaur told IANS.

There are 25 night shelters across the city, of which only two are for women and children. Most of these shelters are in the busy areas of the capital like market places and near railway stations.

The functioning of 15 of these shelters, which offer accommodation at Rs.6 a night, is taken care of by the AAA.

For the families of construction workers who mostly live by the roadside or at building sites in make-shift shanties made of tarpaulin sheets, it’s a similar story of fight against the bitter cold.

“My husband gets a wage of Rs.100 a day and I get Rs.85. The price of vegetables and cereals has touched the sky. And on top of that is the cold. How can we manage a decent life? We have to make do with whatever little we have,” said Rakhi Das, a construction worker.

Although there is little respite coming their way, those like Amoli are nevertheless thankful to the generous gestures of strangers, like the one who dropped her a blanket on New Year’s eve.

“I was cold and shivering - tired of walking the roads selling red-coloured caps and balloons. That blanket in the night came as a mark of celebration for me,” she said.

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