The burly man neatly pours a small peg in a plastic glass and fills it with some chilled water, appearing strangely at ease in the city’s punishing heat. His friends saunter down the dirt track, desolate, but for the occasional motorbike rumbling past, to join him. A few gulps later, dreariness sets in and they walk down the road, towards the Ravidas camp, a packed settlement on the margins of south Delhi’s glitz.
One December evening a little over four years ago, one such drinking session in the slum had set off a grisly chain of events, putting the colony of around 250 families in the spotlight, which it still finds hard to shake off. Public drinking carries a maximum penalty of Rs 5,000 in the national capital, but like everywhere, even in Ravidas camp or the nearby Sarawati camp, impunity seems to be getting the better of law.
Soon after December 16, 2012, the slum–cramped between a medieval tomb and the temple of a 15th century saint–discovered that it happened to house four of the six assaulters 23-year-old physiotherapy intern. Her gangrape and murder galvanised the country to the point where young women seized poles outside the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the president of India’s official residence, demanding safety, justice and freedom from sexual assaults. Four years after the fateful night, the shanties of Ram Singh, who drove the bus in which Pandey had been brutally raped and assaulted along with her male partner, and Mukesh Singh, whose death sentence was confirmed by the Supreme Court on May 5, are chained.
The families of two others whose death sentence was endorsed by the apex court–Pawan Gupta and Vinay Sharma–-have locked themselves in. The settlement, which the inhabitants believe came up around 25 years ago, is dotted with small shacks that stand cheek by jowl. Dish antennas peek out of most the rooftops and desert coolers drone across the colony.
The residents, mostly migrant families of autorickshaw drivers, street vendors and domestic workers, get edgy at the very mention or sight or the media. “Why sully the name of our entire settlement for their wrongdoing? Why has the world reduced us to that one identity, that those people stayed here? Do people even care about the real issues we fight day in and day out,” Kamla, a long-time resident of the slum, says. One “real issue”, they stress, is the acute lack of toilets.
The colony has around 30 toilet seats in a rundown toilet complex, built around four years ago, utterly falling short of the actual requirement. The colony’s women, at first fidgety and reluctant, gradually open up to vent their ire at the authorities on the situation that exposes them to danger, and of years of official neglect.
“Every time there is a court verdict, we are reminded of the same incident over and over again. It is as if the entire settlement is guilty of their crime. No one talks about the everyday issues we are facing, the traps we negotiate on a daily basis,” 23-year-old Poonam, who teaches at a local NGO-run vocational centre, says.
The centre, which works in three shifts, has four teachers. It operates out of a small airless room with derelict benches along an open sewer that snakes its way along the colony’s narrow lanes, where dogs stare blankly, perhaps stupefied by the summer heat. A government residential colony in the neighbourhood of the slums is a world in contrast. It has wide, clean, leafy roads with heavy metal gates. Behind the barbed wire fencing, children chase butterflies in its fruity air.
Back in Ravidas camp, the residents negotiate grime and squalor. And the children – they chase houseflies in its musty air.