Shankar Lal, 30, sat on a damaged bed, examining the half-burnt remnants of his possessions in a refugee camp for Pakistani Hindus in North Delhi. On Sunday afternoon, a fire tore through the settlement near Majnu ka Tilla, destroying 28 of the 120 huts there.
“This was all I could save,” said Lal, pulling out a polythene bag with the charred remains of a few Rs 2,000 notes in a bundle of hundreds. It was all he had left of the Rs 30,000 he had managed to cobble together since he crossed the border three years ago.
When the Narendra Modi government on November 8 announced the overnight invalidation of high-value currency notes, the 800-odd residents of New Aruna Nagar Colony, known colloquially as Pakistan Colony, were among the millions of unbanked people left utterly stranded. Like Lal, few of them have the identity documents necessary to open bank accounts, so they had no way to deposit the little cash they had saved over the years.
Though there were no casualties, Sunday’s fire consumed all the personal possessions and furniture of many families, along with the cash they had stored over the years. Said Lal, who hails from Tando Muhammad Khan district in the southern part of Pakistan’s Sindh province, “I have lost everything now.”
Lal, who lives in the camp with his wife Chandra and one-year-old daughter, made his living selling mobile phone covers and screen guards that he carries around in a handheld cart. But these too were claimed by the flames. All that he has left is the tattered remains of some hand-made blankets and embroidered blanket covers and utensils he had brought from Pakistan.
The camp, though just kilometres away from the urban chaos of Delhi, resembles a remote village. Reclaimed from a patch of forest, the homes in this settlement are made of bamboo huts or have mud walls and thatched roofs. Since 2011, more than 1,000 refugees from Pakistan are estimated to have settled in Delhi. In 2015, after a group of Pakistani refugees met Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, the state government built toilets in the camp and provided residents with water and electricity.
Like Lal, most of the men here make a living by selling mobile covers and screen guards.
Delhi Fire Services officials said the the blaze was likely caused by a spark from an earthen stove. The materials used to build the houses are highly combustible, and the fire spread to the neighbouring house, causing a gas cylinder to explode. Nine fire engines were involved in the operation to extinguish the blaze.
At one corner of the camp, a man in his mid-30s sat amid the charred remains of his house. He identified himself as Roop Chand. He had come to Delhi in 2011 on a pilgrimage visa, like most other camp residents. He shifted into the camp two years ago and lives here with his parents, wife and four children.
“It has all burnt down,” Chand said as he showed this reporter a heap of cash – almost entirely damaged – bundled up in a stole. “I was the trustee of the informal committee of this camp. This was around Rs 4 lakh and it belonged to the committee. This money, contributed by every family in the camp, is meant for use during marriages and funerals.”
For now, residents of the 28 destroyed homes are staying with neighbours and relatives in the camp.
Cash to ash
Chand said that the fire added to his losses at a time when business was already down because of the cash crunch brought on by the demonetisation. “My biggest fear is, how we will recover what we have lost under such circumstances?” he asked.
Chand is one of the few, if not the only resident of the camp with a bank account. “I opened a bank account with the help of an Aadhaar card a few years ago,” he said. “I have my savings there. I make it a point to deposit Rs 1,000 in the account every month.”
His neighbour, Kanwar Ram, whose home was also burnt down, said that soon after the government had invalidated Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes, all the camp residents had chipped in to exchange the camp committee’s money for valid currency, taking turns to queue up at banks.
“For exchange purpose, our [Pakistani] passports worked as valid documents,” said Hari Das, whose house was also among the 28 destroyed in the fire. “If any particular branch refused, Roop Chand had to approach them with his Aadhaar card.”
Ram and Das, both of them from Hyderabad district in Sindh, have no bank accounts and lost all the cash they had saved – Rs 30,000 and Rs 35,000 respectively – in the fire. They said that they recently applied for Aadhaar cards, but are yet to get their unique identity numbers, which are necessary for them to obtain bank accounts. The only other identity documents they had were their Pakistani passports, but those too were destroyed in the fire.
The residents of the camp are hoping for some sort of compensation from the government after the fire, but do not how how they will get it. “We are not sure if we are eligible for compensation,” Ram said. “If we get any money, will we get cash or will the government first help us in opening bank accounts?”