It’s 6.30 am and five children with bags climb onto two 40-feet-long pipelines, less than 1 foot wide, to cross over to the main road on the other side of a nullah, to catch their school vehicles. Smog hangs heavy over Wazirabad village, where an 11-month-old baby died two weeks ago after slipping from her mother’s arms as she crossed one of these pipelines and fell into an eight-feet-deep drain. Returning from the market close to midnight, she was carrying the baby as well as bags with bangles and vegetables.
Varun Yadav and Rajiv Patel, two children taking the pipeline route, know of the incident. But, the 15 year olds add — as do most of the 100-odd people who will cross over in the next 11 hours — that the pipeline is a shortcut compared to the route 200 metres away.
Residents of Wazirabad, mostly domestic helps or labourers, have been seeking a foot-overbridge over the nullah for long. In its absence, the Delhi Jal Board’s pipelines are their first choice to get to the Outer Ring Road. The death of 11-month-old Krishna invokes barely a pause. Plus, the alternative route is no more than a narrow strip of a bridge, with traffic running both ways.
Soon, there is a long row of men and children holding bottles crossing the pipelines. Bambam Yadav, 32, who works as a contract labourer, says the heavy undergrowth on the other side provides them privacy as they perform daily ablutions. Houses in Wazirabad, mostly unplastered two-storey homes, have no toilets or water supply.
Around 10 am, a family of four, including a 7-year-old girl, get on one of the pipelines. “We don’t allow the child to go near the pipeline alone. When we take this route, I hold her hand tightly,” says the grandmother. Her son interrupts, “From now on, we will take the other road, even if it takes a few more minutes.”
Around 1.45 pm, Ombati (63) crosses a pipeline swiftly. She is on her way home from Gopalpur market 3 km away, carrying a carton and an exhaust fan on her head. She knows the route is not safe, but blames others for breaking a wall that prevented access to the nullah, built by the Delhi government’s Flood Control Department. The department has rebuilt the wall at least two times in the last couple of years. “If the wall was there, people would not be able to access the pipeline,” Ombati says.
The 8-9-feet wall is mostly intact but for the portion next to the pipeline. Personnel at the Flood Control Department office, barely 100 metres away, admit it’s unlikely the wall will be repaired soon. “We can rebuild it tomorrow, but the wall won’t stand even for a day,” an official said.
Around 4.45 pm, Neeraj Kumar (22), who works as a mason, returns from work. Halfway down the pipeline, he sits down casually to take a call. “I was talking to a friend about plans for the evening,” he says. As it grows dark, along comes Sushil (28). Despite having met with an accident while crossing the drain six years ago, he walks briskly. “I slipped and fell. Bahut chikna pipe hai, aur barish main slip hota hai… But this has become a habit now.”
Timarpur police station SHO Om Prakash says a foot-overbridge is the answer. “The death of the infant on October 25 is the first of its kind to be reported. We will write to the authorities to rebuild the wall and put up a board warning people not to walk on the pipelines.”
Councillor Amarlata Sangwan from the Congress says she has submitted complaints to the DJB and Flood Department requesting them to barricade areas where the wall is broken. “We’ll ask for a foot-overbridge now.”
At the house of the infant who died, located 20 metres from the nullah, his mother Pooja, 22, says it was the dew on the pipelines that caused her to slip. Her father Ram Shankar says that in his youth, he had rescued many from drowning in the Yamuna. But he couldn’t save his grandson.
As darkness engulfs the Outer Ring Road, and the nullah can barely be spotted, Pooja’s uncle Ramdev, a security supervisor at Delhi University, stands in front of the pipelines talking about the children who use them.
“Some day there will be a major accident” he mumbles, “And we will have no one to blame but ourselves.”