A fire broke out at a shelter home in Vasant Kunj, South Delhi, early Friday killing two inmates — a 27-year-old mentally-ill woman and 60-year-old man.
The facility, run by NGO Earth Survivors Foundation, doubled up as an old age home as well as a shelter for the destitute and mentally ill. A school for underprivileged children was being run on the premises during the day. It lodged nearly 150 inmates.
According to police, they received a call around 2.30 am on Friday alerting them about a fire in the shelter. “We rushed to the spot and found the place ablaze. We tried to rescue as many people as we could. The cause of fire is yet to be ascertained and we are investigating all angles. A case of negligence has been filed in this matter,” a police officer in Vasant Kunj said.
One of the dead, Poonam (27), was mentally challenged and could not run as her legs had been amputated. “She had been rescued by police from Connaught Place and brought here,” the founder of the shelter Ravi Kalra said, adding that she had been “bed-ridden for a long time”.
The other person who died, Ramesh Kumar (60), had come to the home last year after his family abandoned him. Kalra said he liked to sleep in the store room to keep watch on the vegetables and food items stored there.
The charred bodies were found by police after the blaze was put out.
Charred almirahs, desert coolers, beds and other paraphernalia littered the ground where the shelter stood. The only thing that remained intact was the national flag, fluttering in the afternoon sun.
The inmates stood in a corner, under the shade of trees, while others sat in tents that served as a school for the underprivileged.
“Such was the intensity of the blaze that even trees were not spared. Nine fire tenders worked for hours before the fire was brought under control,” a fire official said.
Kalra said the shelter was registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs and had been running with financial support received through donations.
“We have received no help from the government so far. I started this centre in 2008. Last year, our lease expired, so we requested the government for land. They sent us to Narela. Then, a sympathiser offered us land near Ghitorni free and we were to move there later this month,” Kalra said.
Avikar Raj (69), who retired as a barrister in London and moved to India to do social work, said the NGO was doing all it could to help the inmates rendered homeless.
“The fire broke out in one corner and spread fast. We are now trying to find a temporary arrangement until we move to our next site,” Raj said.
As news of the fire spread, help poured in from volunteers and the residents nearby. People came with fruits, milk, clothes and other relief material for the inmates.
Aruna Diwan, a resident of Sushant Lok in Gurgaon, drove to Vasant Kunj with her friends and sister to distribute clothes and bedsheets at the makeshift camp.
Rakesh Singh (69), an inmate, said he came to Earth Survivors Foundation after several other organisations asked him for money to live in their shelters.
“One place asked for Rs 1 lakh as a one-time fee. If I had so much money, would I have to live in a shelter? The people here have big hearts. We lost two friends. Maybe this is God’s will,” Singh said.