Ground Report: Why Migrants Think They're Being 'Held Captive' at Delhi Shelter Homes

‘We’ve lost jobs, run out of all our money but the hardest thing is to be stripped off our dignity, to be treated like prisoners.’

New Delhi: Over the past few days, the sight of thousands walking, hungry, fatigued, trying to return to their villages has given way to other visuals, as stark, of the surge at the border, fighting for a place on the buses or trains headed home.

Among them are many who had tried before but were caught and sent to live in temporary shelters across Delhi. This is the story of some of them, of the conditions they were forced to live in thanks to a lockdown enforced with a haste and a lack of planning which never factored them in. Many of them have only now managed to leave the shelters, but others, mostly from Uttar Pradesh continue to remain there as a fresh set of migrants passing through Delhi join them.

The SDMC Primary School in Sarai Kale Khan II in South-East Delhi is located at the end of a narrow lane, just wide enough to let a car in. Since April 18, the Delhi government has turned it into a ‘shelter camp’ for migrant labourers and others, the homeless who are the more permanent residents of the streets of Delhi. More than a 100 such school-shelters have been set up across Delhi’s 11 districts which at the peak of the crisis housed more than 25,000 people

Pushpendra from Bulandshahr used to work as a driver at a taxi stand in Delhi. Left with no means to support himself when the lockdown was imposed and his taxi stand shut down, he decided to walk home. “As I got closer to the Delhi border, I saw hundreds of others walking, some were going to Bihar, I considered myself lucky that I had only a 100 km to go.”

He did not make it, with the Central government’s order not to allow migrants on the road in force, the police caught him and brought him to the Sarai Kale Khan shelter. He found himself locked in with about a hundred others, some with families and small children. “None of us were allowed to leave, sometimes not even allowed out for fresh air but no one was able to tell us under what law they were holding us captive [qaid keeya was the term he used].”

Nandram Ahir with folded hands, pleading to be sent back home. Photo: Radhika Bordia

When he spoke to us on May 11, days before the lockdown was eased, he had already spent 45 days at the shelter, or as he termed it, a detention centre. He said he couldn’t even begin to describe how he had spent these days, “For 20 years I have put in sweat and toil in the city to ensure my daughter Prachi gets a good education, and that my wife and I were able to build a small home for our family.” A home he found himself unable to return to, under laws that were never explained to him. On May 17 he again left for his village, and this time called back to say the police had finally let him through, his imprisonment has ended.

Imprisonment has been the term I’ve heard repeatedly over the past two weeks I’ve spent looking into the conditions in these shelters, accompanying my friend Nidhi Jalan, a health activist who has been distributing supplies at many of these shelters. Like Pushpendra, each one of the ‘detainees’ of the Sarai Kale Khan shelter had a story of their own.

“For 45 days now, I have been living like a qaidi (criminal) for no fault of mine. I beg you to let me go home,” pleaded Nand Ram Ahirwal from Lalitpur in Uttar Pradesh. His wife Leela held on to their four-year-old daughter Radhika as he spoke. The couple was working on a construction site when the lockdown left them without any food. They were picked up by the police close to the Uttar Pradesh border and brought to the school.

“Please take a look at the place where we go to get drinking water and then see the condition of the bathroom next to it,” said Leela before she was rebuked by a policeman who has been hovering around us, ostensibly to ensure we maintain social distancing. “These people are never satisfied with what they’re given, it’s in their nature so don’t take them seriously, he told us.

As the policeman walked off, Leela’s confidence came back. “On the rare days when we have a soap to bathe with, we don’t have one to wash our clothes, but on most days we have neither. We’ve lost jobs, we’ve run out of all our money but the hardest thing is to be stripped off our dignity, to be made to feel like beggars, to be treated like prisoners,” she said before breaking into tears.

Also read: ‘Need to Leave the City, But Have to Return Soon’: Scenes From a South Delhi Screening Centre

At the DAV Senior Secondary School, Jangpura, Komal from Mauranipur in Jhansi said in a voice laced with anguish and anger, “You think we are poor so we are dirty, why bother giving us soap, toothpaste and shampoo. The truth is we don’t have big bathrooms like the ones we build for your homes, but even in the winter we make sure we bathe with cold water.”

It was almost as if she felt the need to remind us that she was human in the face of a lockdown that had sought to strip her, and others like her, of this humanity.

Ironically, when we spoke to the principals, who are in-charge of the coordination of their respective centres, they said they were facing a shortage of supplies. One of the principals, candid about the acute shortage, asked us if we could bring soap, sanitisers and milk for the children.

Soap was being treated as a luxury but it was of concern to almost every person we met. Uma Shankar from Pursuri village in Azamgarh, Khaleel Ahmad from Badayun and Virender from Moradabad, echoed each other as they detailed the humiliation they faced each time they asked for an essential item. “We ran out of bathing soap five days ago, we had just one bar between seven people. When we asked them for more, we were told we should be grateful we’re being fed.”

We were joined by Trivendra from Shahjahanapur, who spoke in greater detail about how they were being treated. Each time they tried coming out of the shelter, he said, sometimes just for a breath of fresh air, the police would hit them with lathis, ordering them inside. “This feels like an endless prison term but I’m told I should be grateful as it’s for our safety. I’d rather die of a virus than tolerate the abuses I get here.”

The filthy water taps at the primary school turned shelter,
Sarai Kale Khan II. Photo: Radhika Bordia

The Aam Aadmi Party’s work on overhauling the physical structure of these schools has meant that most of the buildings – the roofs, the windows – unlike in other states in northern India, are far better. But the conditions inside are a different story. In most places, the quality of the food was poor, and the hygiene was a problem.

The situation has been made worse by the attitudes of those with any authority – these include the police deployed in each school, the school’s own security personnel and the school staff tasked with managing the shelters.

At the Jangpura Co-Ed primary school, one of the supervisors took us to meet a group of men sitting at the school reception. “Sit up straight, put your feet together and talk properly,” he told the men. As he spoke one of them picked up a lathi lying next to a table, held it out and told him, “Go on, why don’t you just beat us like you usually do, show her your usual behaviour.”

On several occasion across schools, the migrants spoke of the ease with which the authorities used the lathi. The supervisors denied the occurrence of any violence but added that occasionally the police, or even they themselves, had to use the lathi to keep the people ‘safe’.

But even more than the physical violence, it was the taunts and the abuses they received that had left them shaken them to the core. “Modiji toh apne aap ko chaiwallah batatey hain, unko toh pata hona chahiye ki ek dum se chai kee dukaan band kardein toh kya beetegee (Modiji says he worked in a chai shop, he should know what it would like if a chai shop was shut down suddenly),” said Mukesh from Jhansi. He is in his mid-20s, and ran a chai shop at the Patiala House court. His parents worked at a shop nearby. They had been walking back to Jhansi when they were caught at the Badarpur border.

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Apart from the migrants, the shelters also house others who had already been on the streets well before the lockdown. Raju Salve, from Mankhurd in Mumbai, had come to Delhi for medical treatment. He eventually ran out of money and had been living for several months under the Nizamuddin flyover. As one of Delhi’s ‘homeless’ Salve was finely attuned to how the hierarchies of poverty were playing out in the shelters, “There are two types of people here. Most of the people are mazdoors (labourers) or even some who were salaried once, then there are people like myself, beghar (homeless). We are used to living off alms, accustomed to taunts, to the lathi, of being treated like we were jungles. The other lot are not. So, they are angry and they fight for better treatment. I am grateful to them for that.”

What we saw was commonplace. Others who have been taking relief material to these centres have much the same stories to tell. Avani Gupta, a student, had formed a small group distributing rations and supplies to those in need related some of what she had seen: “At the Sarojini Bharat Ghar the food was inedible, the rotis were like rock, the dal like water, the rice uncooked. The staff was openly abusing the migrants, calling them ‘bhookey nangey’ (a description that came up several times). They asked us not to distribute toothpaste as the migrants would eat it up.” One man was so incensed by the treatment he faced he went on a hunger fast for four days before he was shifted to another shelter.

The schools-shelters that worked were inevitably the ones with the more compassionate staff. For instance, the Peshwa Road school had supervisors who were empathetic and knew the needs of each person there. Similarly, at one school, Ankita, a security personnel, came up to Nidhi, asking us if we could get sanitary napkins for the women. Her one act of kindness mattered a great deal to the women, a reminder of how much of what has been wrong about these centres is not just about resources but also attitudes.

Much of this could easily be remedied with some hands-on intervention by those in power. On April 20, the official handle of the Aam Aadmi Party had tweeted:

But none of the departments of the Delhi government were willing to field questions on the shelters. The Delhi Shelter Improvement Board said they are not in-charge of the school shelters, only the night shelters. The schools were set up by a notice of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority but its CEO messaged to say that it’s the district magistrates who are responsible for the schools in their area.

The Delhi government did make a bid to involve civil society in the running of the camps, but as Indu Prakash, known for his work on homeless shelters and a member of  the advisory panel formed by the Delhi government to oversee the centres, said, “The suddenness and the magnitude of the problem left everyone unprepared, we were short of staff, and were not able to monitor things as closely as we would have liked.”

On May 17, as the lockdown eased, a large number of those we met were finally able to leave. This does not mean the conditions at the shelters no longer matter, a huge number of migrants are in transit through Delhi and the rush at the borders has meant many of them are being brought to these shelters. On May 20, just at the Kashmere Gate centre alone, 120 people arrived fatigued, hungry and traumatised by their interrupted journey to their villages. If the government does not intervene to improve things, the stories they carry back will be no different from the ones recounted to us.