The school building looked impressive. Then, a swarm of mosquitoes hit.

“It was a bloodbath,” said Vijay Arumugam, recalling Wednesday night. “I could not sleep.”

That evening, thousands of men had been relocated by the Delhi government from the banks of the Yamuna river to government schools in the city. Arumugam, a daily wage worker, was one of them.

The men were moved after news reports put the spotlight on the way the government had abandoned thousands of daily wage workers who had found their way to the river bank after the coronavirus lockdown began in March. The government had started a community kitchen to serve them meals twice a day, but the meals had been abruptly stopped after three shelter cabins had been set on fire on April 11. On Wednesday morning, April 15, reported that hundreds of men had gone without food for nearly three days.

By evening, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal tweeted to say that orders had been issued to relocate the men immediately. Delhi government’s advisor for relief work, Abhinandita Dayal Mathur, put the number of homeless people and migrant workers relocated at around 5,000.

“The police began to round us up around 5 pm,” said Arumugam, recalling the Wednesday evacuation. Unlike many others who had recently drifted to the river bank, he had been living in a shanty there for several years. had interviewed him on Tuesday outside his home. On Saturday, April 18, he looked much the same, dressed in bermudas, a mask covering his face. He said he did not want to leave his home but there was no choice.

“Zabardasti thi,” he said. “The police were raining lathis. We were rounded up and filled in buses.”

His bus was the last to leave the river bank, at around 9 pm, he said. Less than an hour later, they were deposited at a school.

They had been told they were being taken to Rohini, a middle-class residential area in North Delhi. Instead, 400 of them had landed in Bhalswa, not far from the city’s largest landfill, which has a mountain of trash nearly as tall as the Qutub Minar.

Around 10.30 on Saturday morning, when visited the Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, men were standing in an orderly queue in the courtyard of an imposing, red-brick building. Tea was being served in paper cups with a small packet of Parle-G biscuits.

A school teacher, Bhupinder, said 435 workers had been shifted here from the Yamuna bank. Fifty of the 76 rooms had been opened up for them – six workers in each room. The others had been given mattresses with clean, white sheets, to sleep in the corridors.

At first glance, this seemed like a vast improvement over the squalor in which the men lived on the Yamuna bank.

But the conversations soon belied this.

“Only the building is shaandaar [grand],” said Mukesh Kumar, a daily wage worker in his thirties, bitterly. “There is no water in the taps. And stand here for five minutes in the evening and you will see the swarm of mosquitoes. At this rate, we will end up with malaria and dengue.”

But how could the school have more mosquitoes than the sewage-filled Yamuna?

Arumugam pointed out a large drain flowed on the periphery of Bhalswa. The school is itself built near a swamp. “Gutter hai,” he said, dismissively. This is a gutter.

“School children come to study here during the day but no one stays over in the evening,” he said. “So probably nobody knew about the mosquito problem.”

A daily-wage worker drinks morning tea with biscuits at the school in Bhalswa, Delhi. He is among 400-odd men who have been moved from the Yamuna river bank by the government. Credit: Supriya Sharma

The men complained that even the food was worse than what they were being served in the community kitchen on the Yamuna bank. The only saving grace, they said, was that the Sikh volunteer from the Shishganj gurudwara in Old Delhi, who served them morning breakfast at the river bank, continued to show up every morning at this school, 15 km away. “Sardar ji’s rotis fortify us for the day,” said Rajesh Kumar Rai, a worker from Ajmer, Rajasthan.

The Sikh volunteer also brought them soap, said Mukesh Kumar – “one to bathe, another to wash clothes.” He gave them medicines and first aid. Showing a bandaged leg, Kumar said: “A policeman hit me with a lathi last week for no reason. The wound was still festering. Sardar ji bandaged it.” No government doctor had visited the school yet, he added.

Mukesh Kumar said his leg was wounded when a policeman hit him with a laathi at the time of food distribution. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Kumar said he moved to Delhi five years ago from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. A casual labourer, he does odd jobs in Old Delhi. He last went home in January, when he had saved Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 from work done in the wedding season. He would have gone home when the lockdown was announced on March 24 had the trains continued to run, he said. But he was stuck now.

“There is no respite from the mosquitoes,” he said. “We are staying up all night.”

A chorus of voices broke out in support: “Machhar ko maar maar ke aise dhabbe lag rahe hain.” We have stains on our clothes from killing mosquitoes, said the men, clutching a white kurta of an elderly man, unfurling a white bedsheet, anything to show the faint but visible splotches of blood.

The other common complaint was about the water.

“At the Yamuna bank, we collected water from a leaking pipe,” said Mukesh Kumar. “It was sweet and cold. Here the water is brackish and hot.”

The men alleged they had to drink water from the taps in the toilets. “Yahan pe latrine ka paani peena padh raha hai,” said Vasant, 37, who used to cook Chinese food at a restaurant earning up to Rs 700 a day before the lockdown began.

Satish Kumar Maurya, a middle-aged worker, pointed out that the school had many “fridges” – a reference to water coolers. But they were not working, he said.

Originally from Hapur, Uttar Pradesh, Maurya had come to Delhi long ago when he was still a child – so long ago, that the daily wage in the catering business at the time was just Rs 45, he said. Now, it is nearly Rs 400. “I would rather live in a place where I can have the darshan of Jamuna maiya.” he said, folding his hands, invoking the river as a goddess.

A young worker named Raju holds a plate to indicate the quantity of food they receive at the school. Photo: Vijayta Lalwani

For most workers – single, middle-aged, destitute, adrift from home – the Yamuna bank was a familiar haunt where they found solace after a day of hard labour in Old Delhi. “Everyone comes to the pushta [embankment] because it is like a society,” said Manu Kumar, 47, who worked as a waiter, earning around Rs 5,000 a month. “Loneliness gets to us.”

On regular days, the men dissolved into the daily chaos of Old Delhi. But the lockdown made them still and visible.

While these men yearned for the familiarity of the riverside, there were some who had accidentally landed up on the bank.

Sanjay Kumar Yadav, 35, a native of Chapra district in Bihar, was employed in a thread-making factory in Kandhari Kalan in Punjab’s Ludhiana district for about a year. He was headed home for a break when an acquaintance from a nearby village, who runs a kabaadi shop in Old Delhi, suggested they travel together. “I got off a train in Delhi on March 18,” Yadav said. His acquaintance needed to collect some money from borrowers and asked him to wait for a day or two. By the time they were ready to leave, the trains had stopped running.

Echoing the regulars on the Yamuna bank, Yadav said he preferred staying along the river rather than inside the Bhalswa school. “Hum to sooch rahe the, bahar mein hi theek the,” he said. It was better to stay in the open. But what about the hot sun beating down the riverside? “We were able to find some shade under the trees, under the bridge. If we continue to stay here, mosquitoes will kill us.”

Sanjay Yadav was headed home to Bihar from Punjab when he stopped in Delhi and got stuck. Photo: Supriya Sharma

Among the few people who seemed agnostic between the two places was Anil Kumar, a 22-year-old from Bihar’s Motihari district, who had moved to Delhi two years ago. He first heard of the coronavirus outbreak around the time of Holi in early March when the prime minister asked people to avoid celebrating the festival. The next he heard about the crisis was on the evening of March 21, hours before the lockdown began.

“I was pushing a cart at 4 pm near Mori Gate, when people began to say there will be no work from tomorrow,” he said.

Kumar just badly wants to go home. Until he can do that, it doesn’t matter where he stays. “There are mosquitoes here, but the mattresses are good,” the young man said. “These problems can be fixed.”

Anil Kumar was among the younger inhabitants in the school-turned-shelter home. Photo: Supriya Sharma

However, the dominant sentiment among the men was that the school was “a jail of sorts”.

“We are psychologically very stressed,” said Manu Kumar. Unlike most others, he was not a migrant. He had lived all his life in Delhi. After his wife died in 2013, he was estranged from his two children who live with his mother-in-law.

Kumar was hooked on tobacco and beedis, which were not available in the school. “We are so addicted to it and we need it,” he said. “But we cannot go out to get it.”

Forty-year-old Anil Singh’s voice bellowed: “Kyun kar diya begair kasur ke yahan andar?” Why have we been confined here when we have not committed any crime? Originally from Chaukaghat Ahirana, a neighbourhood of Yadavs in the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, Singh said his family has always voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party since the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Migrants should be allowed to go home, he said.

“Take my word to Narendra Modi,” he said. “Tell him this is coming from a boy from Banaras, the place from where you have become the prime minister.”

In a corner sat a skinny young man, shivering. “Didi, bharti kara do please,” he requested. Please get me admitted to a hospital.

His name was Sunil. Aged 22, he said he worked in construction jobs before the lockdown began. About 25 days ago, a doctor had diagnosed him with tuberculosis during a medical check-up at the riverbank, he said. He stretched out his hands and feet to show that they had swollen up, a common symptom of the disease.

“I do not get proper food here,” he said, sounding feeble. “I am not able to fill water for myself. I am not able to go to the toilet on my own.”

He had tried seeking help from the policemen stationed at the school. “But they do not let me get close to them,” he said. “If I get admitted, my life will be saved.”

Before we could walk around the school and independently verify the workers’ allegations – for instance, about the drinking water taps running dry – two teachers disrupted our conversation with the workers.

One of the teachers, GK Mishra, had earlier spoken to us in a friendly way, denying the allegations, saying the school was fitted with 16 water purifiers and all were functional. He said sanitation staff came to clean the premises regularly. “It is an institute, not a hotel,” he said.

A policeman had pointed to a water tank – a small rooftop tank – as evidence of clean drinking water supply in the school.

The white-coloured tank from which drinking water is supplied to the school, according to a policeman. Photo: Vijayta Lalwani

But half an hour later, Mishra, the school teacher, had changed tack. He appeared with a colleague and told the workers to stop talking to us. The teachers insisted we needed to obtain permission from the school principal to continue the interviews.

A man arrived, who was presumably the school principal, though he did not identify himself. He asked the police to force us to leave. “You cannot enter the school without permission from the sub-divisional magistrate,” he said. But this was a government school, we protested, the men were adults, not school children.

As the argument heated up, the tehsildar stormed in with the inspector of the local police station. They compelled us us to leave.

The tehsildar said had we not been women, he would have beaten us up.

In response to questions sent by about the workers’ complaints at the Bhalswa school, the government’s advisor for relief work, Abhinandita Dayal Mathur said:

“Delhi government is fully committed to provide a safe and hygienic stay [and] arrangement for all people stranded due to the lockdown even though it might take a few days for things to fall in place when there is a large influx of people into shelters suddenly. We are also ensuring a medical check of all those in our shelters within the first week of their arrival. We will look into the deficiencies reported, if any, and fix those immediately.”

Food canisters arrived at the school at 11.30. We could not stay to watch lunch being served to the men.