Day-time occupancy at shelters for the homeless has increased by 2.5 times in the past three days. With the capital under lockdown since Monday, the number of people staying in the shelters has gone up, with officials saying even at night, 1,000-1,500 people are staying there now.
On Saturday, 2,805 people stayed at the shelter. This number rose to 6,846 on Monday, the day the lockdown came into force. The number of those staying the night increased from 7,200 to 8,700.
The Delhi government has been distributing food in several shelters over the past two days. It is also considering financial aid for those living in shelters.
Labourers, rickshaw pullers, street vendors, sanitation workers and daily-wage labourers, who have been rendered vulnerable and bereft of income and food amid the lockdown, said they are unsure of what to do next. Factories and construction sites are closed, and inter-state train and transport services are suspended at least until March 31.
For the time being, night shelters run by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) are proving to be cold comfort at an uncertain time.
On Tuesday, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted: “I have come to know that some people are not getting food due to the curfew. If you are in contact with someone who is looking for food and support, then send them to the nearest shelter of Delhi government, food has been arranged there.”
DUSIB member Bipin Rai told The Indian Express, “We have been providing lunch and dinner at 220 shelters since March 23. The people, even if they are not living in shelters, can choose from a simple menu of rice, pulses, vegetables, sometimes even khichdi.”
“Around 8,000 people are staying and approximately 10,000 are having meals,” he said. The food is prepared at various kitchens across the city and transported by vans to the shelters.
As part of safety measures, masks and gloves are used by workers to distribute food. At the shelters, people are checked for temperature and sent to hospitals if they show flu-like symptoms. “We make sure people wash their hands before eating,” said Rai.
Kantha (40), a street vendor from Mumbai, has been staying with her sons and their families on the footpath and near public toilets at Sarai Kale Khan. The family used to earn Rs 400-Rs 700 per day and is now left with no income. Kantha said, “We have no work, no money, and cannot even go home.”
She said that though her family is eating at the shelter, lack of money or any vegetable markets nearby has made life harder: “Even if we wanted to buy anything, we have no place to get it from… we are drinking tap water. Even tea shops are closed.”
At Nizamuddin, Manshuk Lal (35), a daily-wage labourer earning Rs 300 per day on an average, has been staying at a DUSIB shelter for years with his wife and six young children. Sitting on the ground owned by the shelter are many families like him, with young children.
“We have no work, our kids are hungry. We just eat what we get, but I wish we could buy vegetables, oil and cook our own food,” he said.
At a shelter in Lodi Colony, Alam Mehmood (28), a rickshaw puller who would earn about Rs 200 a day, said, “I have been eating from the shelter… we get simple dal and rice.” He collects the food in a plastic bag to eat later.
Dr Rathin Roy, director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, emphasised the importance of supporting the incomes of daily-wage labourers. He said, “People who earn day-by-day have low cash margins, and the path to their destitution is swift. The government should not just provide cash transfers, but income support — to the chaiwallah, vendors and daily-wage labourers. They should also ensure that supply chain of food is not disrupted, and prices of food remain steady.”
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