Eight-year-old Chirag’s eyes are glued to the television. Scary dialogues are blaring off the screen, straight from a Ramsay Brothers’ film Tehkhana. His hands reach out automatically to seek warmth from what is essentially a makeshift angithi—in this case, a vessel on a table with a few pieces of wood burning. Around 30 other people in the tent, none of whom are related to Chirag, are watching the film with the same concentration.
What brings these people together under a 20x50ft green tent on a January night isn’t just the movie—it’s the cold wave sweeping the Capital. According to PTI, Delhi alone has recorded at least three cold-related deaths since 26 December.
The tent is one of the two shelters in south Delhi—one in Nehru Place, near the fire station, and another in Kalkaji, opposite the Kalkaji temple—that were pulled down by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on 10 December and 14 December, respectively. After a Supreme Court directive, these were re-erected on 17 December.
Palvinder Singh, director of the NGO Prerna, says: “There are 84 temporary night shelters for winters functional in Delhi. The cost of maintaining one tent for a month comes to around Rs24,000.” Singh says the Delhi government will be reimbursing the NGOs for the expense on the shelters, which are supposed to be functional till February-end.
The shelters are overseen by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, which asks NGOs to manage them, says Singh. Prerna, for instance, is managing the Nehru Place shelter, which has two tents, and another NGO, Sahyog, the Kalkaji one.
Chirag, an orphan, used to sleep in the open grounds at the Kalkaji temple until the night shelter, “Sardi ka Aashray”, came up. “I live alone. This (the shelter) is a warmer place, they give us blankets and I get to watch TV,” he says.
The shelters, each with a capacity for taking in 60-70 people, provide beds, mattresses and blankets. An electricity meter is mounted on one of the tall bamboos that hold the tent together. Four 16-watt energy savers hang from a loose wire connected to the meter. Each shelter has a television set and a DVD player. There is some provision for water at the Kalkaji shelter; at the one at Nehru Place, people have to fetch water from a building nearby. Neither shelter, however, has toilets. At the Kalkaji one, for instance, shelter occupants use the temple bathrooms during the day and the open field at night.
Each shelter has a caretaker. They keep a register of the people who stay there. The shelters are operational through the day as some women and children stay back in the afternoons too.
Prem and her four children live in the Nehru Place shelter. Seven-year-old Ramrakh, her youngest child, enjoys his stay there and jumps around from one bed to another, pulling the blankets off his elder siblings to wake them up. “My husband died two years ago. We had moved from Rajasthan to Delhi. I have no house and no one to take care of my children. This chill is unbearable, especially for the youngest, Ramrakh. We came here so that we don’t die on the roads,” says Prem, a daily wage worker, who has been living in Delhi for four years. She often works at traffic signals with her children, selling trinkets and pens, among other things.
What the occupants fear most is the police—and the drug addicts.
Shanti, a henna artiste who works at a market near the Kalkaji temple and stays at the Nehru Place shelter, says: “The biggest problem is the cops, they harass us (and) hit us for no reason. We live here with our daughters and children. There is a constant fear that the cops might beat us.” Almost everyone at the shelter shares the concern. Even the caretaker Sundar, an employee of the NGO, agrees: “They do trouble them a lot, we keep filing complaints but nothing seems to be happening.”
Some others, such as Poonam Devi, keep away from shelters because of the presence of drug addicts. She prefers to sleep under a foot overbridge.
But for those who inhabit the shelters, the warmth and the TV provide a respite from the day’s drudgery. Vijay, 15, who lives in a slum nearby and goes to school during the day, goes to the Nehru Place shelter only to watch films—and returns home at night. He has befriended the boys who live there: Prakash, Hanuman and Sunny. There is laughter as one of them accuses him of being an “infiltrator”.
Early in the morning too, people are glued to the television set; only this time, it is not a horror film but an action film starring Ajay Devgn. “All we like (to) do is watch films, this is our only time pass,” says Bali, the caretaker at the Kalkaji shelter.