Three boys race each other as a goods wagon chugs along the settlement of 2,000 households in South Delhi’s Madrasi Camp, with tiny houses barely 2 metres from railway tracks. Mahesh (10) is the first to reach the finish point — a grocery shop — but gets a slap on his head as he shouts “Ye mera (I won)!”.
As the boys run past unaffected, to gather sticks lying between rail tracks, the exasperated shopkeeper says, “This boy is trouble. A train runs past here every half an hour, and he has been running around helter-skelter.”
A month ago, a boy was killed in another part of the capital after groups of children clashed over who had the right to play on a disputed plot in front of a mosque. And Friday saw stone pelting at the same plot.
The children at Madrasi Camp, adjoining the market areas of Lajpat Nagar and Bhogal, have only one free space to themselves: along and around the railway tracks.
Families from Tamil Nadu first settled on this block of Railway land 35 years ago. Aluvai (57), the ‘pradhan’ of the slum, says authorities keep telling them to vacate the land. “Why don’t they rehabilitate us elsewhere?” he asks.
Most families here earn a living either doing menial jobs or running small businesses. The rail tracks come handy through the day: for elders to spread out a charpoy and play cards, for those headed to the other side to use as a shortcut, and for children to play.
While there are some parks in the surrounding areas, children say they are not allowed inside. Government quarters at Jal Vihar nearby, housing senior Delhi Jal Board (DJB) officials, have clusters of green spaces in the midst of Type I to Type V accommodation.
Piyush (14), a Class IX student at a government school, says he and his friends have been chased away multiple times by residents. “They even filed a police complaint four months ago and put a lock on the park facing the community centre. But we get in when nobody is around.”
V Muthu, who studies in Class VIII at a school run by the government-aided Delhi Tamil Education Association (DTEA), says when they can, they use the lawns of the Jal Vihar community centre to play football and gilli danda. “But on my way home from school today, I saw tents being put up. Every day there is a wedding. What a waste!”
Adds Kartik, a Class X student at another DTEA school, “There is just one park, at Madan Dairy (nearly 1 km away), where we can go. But since there is a slum settlement of north Indians nearby, they think it’s theirs. They call us names they have heard in Hindi films. But we don’t back off easily,” he winks.
Muthu’s classmate Naveen regrets that another open ground managed by the Jal Board was recently landscaped by its Horticulture Department into a garden.
Chandan Singh (58), a security guard at Jal Vihar, says, “Residents exercise in the morning and evening. All are allowed, but criminal elements from these areas come to steal from these parks. They do drugs.”
The DJB manages all the parks in the locality. Roop Chand, Deputy Director of its Horticulture Department, says, “We have to follow the RWA’s wishes. But we don’t stop anybody from playing.”
However, K S Bisht, who claims to the president of the Jal Vihar RWA, says, “These children encroach on parks meant for our children. This should not have been the situation, but what can we do? We don’t want criminal elements. Is our safety not important?”
Aam Aadmi Party MLA Praveen Kumar, under whose constituency the Madrasi Camp falls, says the government is trying to resettle them under a rehabilitation policy for slum dwellers. Adding that it’s wrong if children from the camp are denied access to nearby parks, he says, “We have zeroed in on a location for a new park for them in Jal Vihar. It should take another three months.”
Meanwhile, the girls have it even tougher, says Savita (36), the mother to a daughter and two sons. “It is not safe to let the girls out,” she says. “People drink, do drugs. My girl doesn’t go anywhere,” says Savita, who earns around Rs 7,000 a month working as a domestic help.
Looking up from her Class VIII English textbook, daughter Revathi, 14, says, “I play at home with my friends. Whatever else we have to play, we do it at school.”
Rajiv (37), who sells chicken biryani along the tracks, refers to the recent Punjab incident where more than 60 people were crushed as they stood on rail tracks watching a Ravana effigy being burnt on Dussehra. “Nobody knows that a similar accident was avoided here the same night. At the last moment, we spotted the train,” he says.