Ratan Singh’s home does not show up on Google maps. One has to walk along the Yamuna riverbed near Kashmere Gate, duck under a pipeline, and scramble past a pack of dogs to reach a hole in the ground. This is where the 25-year-old used to sleep — until burgeoning crowds of homeless people and stranded labourers took his spot.
He is thankful to the first Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, Dr A N Jha, for his new sleeping spot — the commemoration stone erected in his honour near the riverbed now serves as a bed for him and several others.
Around 11.30 pm on Saturday, Singh used a bag packed with his clothes as a pillow and covered himself with a red blanket torn in several places. “L-G sahab amar rahe,” he said, as he slipped into sleep.
For the past one week, several hundred men, most of them working as caterers in weddings, sleep out in the open on the Yamuna riverbed. With social distancing norms allowing only around 15 people to sleep inside shelter homes nearby, the riverbed is their only refuge.
Some sleep next to buffaloes and dogs, covering themselves with plastic sheets torn in several places. They are the lucky ones. Those without a blanket have a curtain of mosquitoes hovering over them, waking up every few minutes to wave their hands in the air as they slowly drift off to sleep again. Only the sound of someone coughing breaks the silence.
The white circles and squares marking the waiting lines to the seven shelter homes dotting the stretch now has homeless men sprawled over them. Several men, huddled against each other, even share a blanket as they sleep under trees.
The only ones following social distancing are the ones sleeping on cement slabs every few metres, even though they dismiss the dangers posed by coronavirus as a minor blip in their lives.
“Roti, kapda, makaan. Yahi samasya hai. Virus wagera kuch nahi hota,” said Raj Kumar Thapa, who left Nepal for work in Delhi over two years ago.
Even though food supply has been steady as scores of volunteers feed them through the day, there is little protection against the virus. “What is stopping the government from making a small house for me? I also work. I have worked in factories, pulled rickshaws most of my life, and washed plates at weddings. Ek ghar humein bimmari se bachayega,” said Pappu Kumar Yadav, who wandered across the riverbed looking for a place to sleep.
Sunil Kumar Aledia, who has been working with homeless people for over two decades, said, “There are several hundred men who sleep out in the open on the Yamuna riverbed stretch near Kashmere Gate. People have been sleeping here even before the shelter homes were made. There are no medical checkups in this area, and the homeless are vulnerable to the vagaries of nature. Now, with the virus doing the rounds, there is overcrowding here.”
Shiv Kumar (35), who worked as a palanquin bearer for Rs 500 for eight hours of work, now sleeps beside an elderly man who raves about corruption killing the homeless. “He has a mental disorder… But I don’t feel scared, he is harmless,” said Kumar.
Volunteers said around 6,000 face masks were distributed to people along the riverbed. But no one here is using one. Their masks are tucked inside their pockets, and they have not seen a bar of soap in two weeks.
Ram Singh (32), a wedding caterer, who was playing cards with three other men, said: “Yahan chai mil rahi hai, wahi bahut badi baat hai. Saabun toh dur ki baat hai.”
Naushad (34), who used to work at a local hotel cutting vegetables for Rs 300 a day, is among the lucky ones who was allowed to sleep on a cot inside the hotel’s kitchen. A yellow shawl, a face mask hanging around his neck and a dhoti is all he has. “Hotel mein kum se kum bed milta hai,” he said.
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