Three shelter homes near Kashmere Gate Inter State Bus Terminal in Delhi, which received migrant labourers after the lockdown started, were set on fire on Saturday, a day after occupants and civil defence volunteers got into a heated argument during distribution of food. The area also saw stone-pelting in the evening between those living at the shelter homes and police.
By Saturday night, six men from the shelter homes had been arrested, Delhi Police’s Additional PRO Anil Mittal said.
The shelters, housed in porta cabins, had received many of the migrant labourers in the Capital left destitute by the lockdown, swelling their numbers to hundreds in a space meant to accommodate around 250. The Capital’s shelters are currently home to around 12,000 people.
Blankets and personal belongings of the occupants, such as clothes, phones and water dispensers, were among the items destroyed. The government is arranging temporary accommodation for them.
“We received a call around 6 pm about a fire at the shelter homes. The blaze was brought under control within an hour,” Delhi Fire Service Director Atul Garg said.
Nishu Tripathi, in-charge of the three shelter homes, told The Indian Express that tensions had been running high since Friday. “Around 2 pm on Friday, a fruit-seller came and started distributing fruits to the people at the shelters. On another side, lunch was being given by the volunteers. There was a massive crowd and many refused to stand in a line or follow social distancing norms. Civil defence volunteers asked them to behave and a fight took place. There was pushing and shoving, and a volunteer was injured.”
Tripathi said a PCR call was made and, in the middle of the commotion, a resident jumped into the Yamuna. The shelters are located on the riverbank, and the area is called Yamuna Pushta. “Four more jumped in to save him,” Tripathi said.
According to Mittal, the shelter home’s occupants claimed that one of the men who had jumped into the river did not resurface. On Saturday, some men from the shelters found a body along the riverbed in Civil Lines, a few kilometres away. “They claimed this was the person who had jumped into the river. They brought the body to the shelter home and called police. When police reached, residents started pelting stones… Within minutes, the shelter homes were set on fire,” Mittal said.
He added that they had to calm people down to take the body for postmortem, and its identity was yet to be established. “Prima facie, it appears the body is older than a day.”
Ajay Singh, 26, a waiter who has been coming to the shelter home for over two years, says friction had been building up since the past two weeks after the migrant labourers came. The shelters earlier housed largely beggars and vagabonds.
He said the civil defence volunteers usually took a heavy-handed approach, and complaints about the lack of food, space, the heat and mosquitoes had increased of late.
A government spokesperson said that “for now, those living in the three porta cabin shelters are being relocated to a municipal school nearby”.
DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) member Bipin Rai said, “Around 250 people will be shifted to the school tonight itself. Arrangements have been made.”
On Saturday evening, the road leading to the three shelter homes was strewn with stones and bricks, as smoke continued to billow from the structures. Hundreds of men waited on a ground at the back as night fell. “We are waiting for someone to take us somewhere; else we will just sleep here,” said Ajay Singh.
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