“Khaana aaya hai!” shouted a voice at 12:15 pm. Immediately, well over a thousand men scrambled to the main road and sat in closely packed lines on either side of the divider, waiting expectantly. Every day since the capital has shut down, thousands of migrant labourers, who now find themselves without any work or income, sit by the Yamuna Pushta near the Nigambodh Ghat through the day, waiting to be fed by the government night shelters — or anyone else.
The area has a line of six Delhi government-run night shelters. However, their capacity to house them is limited.
“Our regular capacity across these shelters was 700. But now because we’re trying to prevent crowding inside, it has been cut down to 300. We have provided the rest of the bedding for people to sleep on the path outside. Around 3,000 people sleep outside every night,” said a member of the shelter management.
Large numbers of men sleep on the pavements by the Pushta regularly, but before the lockdown, they used to go seek work at labour chowks across the city or ride rickshaws during the day, to earn for their meals. Now their days revolve around waiting for their stomachs to be filled.
“We get one roti each in the morning at around 7 am because people from the Sis Ganj Gurdwara come to distribute food. Then, the rest of the day, different charitable people come and give food. Some feed 15, some feed 20. Everyone here is just waiting for their turn,” said Gajraj (40), a labourer from Madhya Pradesh, who has not earned in a week.
The shelter management prepares dal-rice and khichri meals for lunch and dinner as per government directives. It is preparing food with 2.5 quintals rice, 1 quintal dal, 15 kg of soya chunks and 75 kg of potatoes per meal, but even that is falling short for the hungry crowd outside.
At 12:15 pm, a white van drove by and stopped near the shelters. It was carrying food donated by the Delhi Hindustani Mercantile Association. As a gloved and masked man handed out packets of rice and vegetable curry to those lined up on the dividers, a large number of men swarmed up to him to grab a packet. Police personnel supervising the operation dispersed the crowd by hitting them with lathis.
“This is what people have been reduced to — fighting for food. If volunteers distribute food, there’s a chance we may get it. If they just leave it here, one can’t imagine the chaos that will ensue,” said Amit Kumar, a 38-year-old labourer from Bulandshahr.
Conversation of death is constant by the pushta. “Hunger is far more dangerous to us poor than the coronavirus because it is likely to kill us first. The government might have tried to do something for the public good but there should have been a system. And if it’s the virus they are concerned about, have they tried to at least provide masks to those who are sitting outside like this every day?,” asked Beer (19), whose village is in Mathura.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines