On Saturday evening, Salim Baig (40) sat near the banks of the Yamuna with a single thought in his head: “Where do we go from here?” On March 31, he and his brother decided to walk from a construction site in East Delhi to their home in UP’s Moradabad, only to be turned away by police at Ghazipur.
The brothers, who are migrant labourers, landed at the porta shelter cabins near Kashmere Gate ISBT. On Saturday, they lost the roof over their head again — like hundreds of others — after three shelter homes were set ablaze at 5.45 pm, a day after occupants clashed with civil defence volunteers over “food distribution”.
“There is no work, money or food, no way to get home. The shelter home was our only option. I had puri-bhaji in the morning and nothing since. Due to the stone-pelting and fire, volunteers are abusing us; they won’t feed us. If we have no place to stay tonight, we will sleep next to the dumpsters and animals,” said Baig.
Among the occupants are beggars, vagabonds, labourers who worked in the area and had been here for a few years, and migrant workers turned away at the borders after the lockdown.
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While no lives were lost, several men said they lost their belonging including phones, toothbrushes, soap and clothes. “Phones were the only way to stay in touch with our families…,” said an occupant, as policemen and district authorities, told them to maintain “social distancing”.
Many claimed they weren’t given masks. “Some people bought them with their own money, we haven’t been given any by authorities. They talk about social distancing but how is it possible? There are so many of us,” said construction worker Suraj Singh.
Rajinder Sharma (35), who works at a hotel and has been staying at the shelter home for two years, said the number of occupants has increased since the lockdown and so have daily clashes over food and bedding.
“I saw volunteers manhandle a man yesterday as he was fighting over food… At 5.30 pm, there was stone pelting and a few people torched the rooms. Police are still shouting at us… I don’t care about the virus, I just want to be some place safe.”
Meanwhile, civil defence volunteers and DUSIB employees denied the allegations. Veerpal, head of the volunteers, said, “We have been working day and night for them. How can they say we haven’t fed them anything? We take photos, videos every day for records. They had lunch at 2 pm… after that, they fought with us. We sustained minor injuries.”
Joint CP (Central range) Suvashis Chaudhary wrote to the Delhi government that the men should be moved to others shelters as these are over-occupied.
Sunil Kumar Aledia, founder of the Centre for Holistic Development (CGH), said: “Even before the lockdown, there were many problems that people faced at the homes. They are occupied beyond capacity; there is a food and bedding crisis as the government has decided to house migrant labourers as well.”
Punjab’s COVID death rate 2.36 times more than national average — even higher than its neighbours