On a scorching summer afternoon in Delhi, amid the second extension of the nationwide lockdown to prevent Covid-19 spread, I met a group of around 15 men living in a depression on the banks of river Yamuna. The spot was strategically chosen, as it was hidden from view from the main road. The Hume pipes in which the men were living contained their only belongings – a pair of new clothes, a gamcha, a bucket, and some vessels to cook and eat in.

Finding food is a challenge every day: they have no savings and employment is out of question. But even amidst these hardships, the Hume pipes have become a haven as the police cannot spot them there. They know, from years of experience, that being invisible to the state is their best bet for survival.

Over many decades, a population of 4,000 to 6,000 – some of the poorest in the capital – have settled on the western embankment of the river, Yamuna Pushta. In my work with homeless people over two decades, I have learnt that a majority of the men at Pushta have broken bonds with their families. For some, it was the shame of being unable to provide for their families in the village, while others had abusive and alcoholic fathers. Some had abandoned their families, while others had been abandoned at birth.

It is a brotherhood of the dispossessed.

The air there is always laden with smoke from human bodies burning in the adjacent Nigambodh Ghat. They subsist in the crannies of the banks of the now-shrunken feculent river, under the noisy canopies of the river bridge, on the rocky ground under trees, in the shelters that government has set up after being ordered by the Supreme Court or under the smoggy open sky.

In summer months, they sleep close to the highway because the vehicle fumes drive away the mosquitoes; sometimes, they are run over by drunken drivers. On winter nights, they sleep in the tin shelters built by the Delhi government on the embankment. Others squat around modest bonfires of twigs to keep warm; or cluster in makeshift video parlours in halls made with plastic sheets and old saris, showing films the whole night, charging a ticket of a few rupees – with companionship, the warmth of the crowded gathering, and a few hours of sleep thrown in free.

Work is hard to come by. They gather at labour addas most mornings, offering their services for dirt-cheap wages. The men often work 36-hour stretches at wedding parties, as casual cooks in dhabas or daily wagers. Others push carts or pull cycle rickshaws. Still others sort waste.

On days that they find work, they share their earnings with the group of men with whom they live in informal collectives. If work runs out, their last resort is food at the gurudwaras, dargahs or temples. A Sikh man, who insists on remaining anonymous, has been coming there each morning for 15 years to feed those who live there.

A month into the countrywide lockdown, this rough informal commune, this brotherhood of the disinherited, is broken. The banks of the Yamuna are deserted for the first time in decades.

Thousands of homeless people have made a home on the banks of river Yamuna. Credit: Luv Arora 28/Wikipedia

Livelihoods disrupted

Within hours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised announcement on March 24 of the lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus, these men knew that the frail strings that held their lives together had been snapped. With weddings, eateries, wholesale markets, construction and public transport shut down, all pathways to employment were blocked. Their last refuge, the gurudwaras and other shrines, were also shut.

By the second day of the lockdown, the number of hungry men in Pushta swelled to over 10,000, as homeless men who earlier lived in smaller clusters and migrant workers stranded in the city converged here. They went hungry for the first few days, until volunteer groups stepped in. These efforts, however, were insufficient to plug the swirling, swelling hunger that rapidly enveloped the Pushta.

Men squatted in lines longer than the eye could see, pressed against each other, waiting for hours for someone to arrive and give them food. If word went around – a whisper, a rumour, a shout – that someone had arrived with food, the lines would shatter, as men ran desperately, often falling over each other in near-stampedes.

It took a few days for the state government to organise cooked food, through NGOs, at the Pushta. For inscrutable reasons, the government prohibited private charities including the Sikh man earlier mentioned from supplying food in the area. Residents of the Pushta learnt that he had shifted his langar to Chandni Chowk. Some old-timers risked lathi beatings from the police to stealthily make their way to Chandni Chowk each day.

In the Pushta, tempers began to fray because lines for meals were interminable and the men complained testily that the food was monotonous and tasteless. The food sometimes ran out before the lines ended. The heat and overcrowding did not help, nor did the surge of strangers.

In my years of work there, I have known them to be peaceable, even passive, despite the many profound deprivations and provocations of their hard and bare lives. However, into the third week of the lockdown, something snapped. On April 11, enraged homeless residents of the Pushta set on fire three homeless shelters. The Pushta had never known such violence.

Violence breaks out

As can be expected, there exist two contrasting versions of what transpired, depending on who you ask. The homeless men I spoke to and my colleagues who work with them report that government had deployed civil defence personnel to police the men as they waited their turn for food. These guards were often rude and disrespectful – roughing up men, hitting them with batons if they found them unruly and shouting abuse – as were some of the shelter organisers.

On April 11, it is not clear whether food ran out or some men quarrelled about its quality. The civil defence constables beat the men with their batons. Tempers flared and the men fought back. The police was brought in after the scuffle, and they grabbed some men who they believed to be the ringleaders of the discontent. Some of the men ran away towards the river and four of them jumped in.

The next afternoon, a decomposed body surfaced from the river. A few homeless men spotted the body, and a restive crowd quickly gathered. Some men said they recognised the body to be of Suraj, a young man from Varanasi in his 20s.

The provoked men spoke of Suraj as their brother and demanded action against the authorities responsible for his death. Acting out of rage, they rushed to the shelters and set them on fire. Smoke billowed high until fire tenders rushed there to quell the conflagration. By then, three homeless shelters were gutted. No one was harmed, but all the men’s belongings were reduced to ashes.

The official version was entirely different. A spokesperson of the Delhi government, Bipin Rai, who has a favourable record of work with homeless people before he joined government, told reporters of Asiaville that many Pushta residents are drug addicts and were experiencing high stress levels since the lockdown was imposed.

“They don’t have any earning sources now and the cost of drugs or liquor has shot up due to the lockdown,” Rai said. “Hence, the addicts cannot afford it,” he added, suggesting that they might have resorted to violence due to their anxiety from substance withdrawal.

Sandeep Yadav/Karwan e Mohabbat

Rai also denied the claim that some Pushta residents had jumped into the river or that any dead body was recovered on the bank. “A dead body was found from the Yamuna near Burari [kilometres away from Kashmere Gate] and rumours spread that the body has been found at Pushta site,” he said.

However, Asiaville reports that Rai’s claims were contradicted by Delhi Police’s Public Relations Officer Anil Mittal, who said, “Four to five people jumped into the Yamuna river. They came out of the river after a while but one of them didn’t return.”

He further added that the body recovered by the residents was sent for a post-mortem. Rai also argued that, “Even if the body was recovered from the said site and we are to believe that it was one of the homeless people who had jumped in, it is impossible for the body to travel in the opposite direction of the water flow.”

[Also read the report by Supriya Sharma and Vijayta Lalwani: Hell on the Yamuna as hundreds starved for days after Delhi shelters went up in flames.]

Unwarranted crackdown

After the fire, the police, wielding their batons, evicted residents thousands of men from the Pushta. Migrants and homeless men from other parts of the city fled to unknown corners of the metropolis. The 4,000-plus original residents of Pushta moved further down the bank.

The government also immediately stopped all food supply at Pushta and police personnel even prevented food charities from operating in the area. There was no moral rationale to punish the entire homeless population for the violence, that too without a thorough and unbiased investigation. Moreover, no action was taken against civil defence or NGO personnel involved in the scuffle. Many of us intervened and requested the officials that the provisions must recommence. But three days passed and food supplies were not restored.

The route from the highway to where the thousands of homeless men were now assembled was forcefully blocked by a large police picket. My colleagues discovered a circuitous rear pathway to the banks and organised food for 800 people. The devoted Sikh man also found his way to the men and fed as many as he could. But the numbers were far larger than what any private food charity could cater to. We found the men in despairing hunger. Someone sent in a large clump of overripe bananas and videos circulated of the men falling upon these to quell the craving in their bellies.

As criticism of the state government mounted in some sections of the media, three nights after the fire, a fleet of buses lined up on the highway parallel to the riverbank. The policemen surrounded the men, pushed them into the buses and caned them into submission if they resisted. Only a few escaped. One of the young men I met in the open pipes later said that he had climbed a tree, and stayed there for many hours until the police left.

Harsh Mander speakers to people living at Yamuna Pushta. Credit: Sandeep Yadav/Karwan e Mohabbat

Confined against will

The Pushta residents were driven to and dispersed in schools in various corners of the city. At the schools, the men were first checked for fever. One of the men I met at Pushta, from Jalpaiguri district of Bengal, was unfortunate enough to be found with both fever and a cough. He was shifted to a local government hospital, where the hospital staff took his samples for testing. They told him that the test results would be known only after four days. Until then, he would have to stay in the hospital.

He reported to us that in the hospital, two patients were made to share one bed. He was made to lie next to corpses. When Covid-19 patients needed physical handling, people awaiting test results were tasked with touching the patients, without any protective gear.

Fortunately, at the end of four days, he tested negative. That night, he quietly slipped out of the hospital and walked all the way to Pushta. Here, he met other friends who were hiding in the pipes and he joined them. I have no way to verify if the horrors of his experience in the hospital is true. I report what he told me.

The government designated the schools in which these men were housed as shelters, and claimed that the men had been moved there to ensure their safety during the lockdown. The men in the schools saw these not as shelters but jails, where they were confined against their will. The men I met weeks later had escaped from these and stealthily found their way to the Pushta. Some said that officials allowed restive residents to leave after a week of confinement. In Pushta, they hid in pipes and crags and depressions on the river bank, where police patrolling the highway would not see them.

They complained to me about the food served in the school shelters. They were doled half-cooked rice and watery dal twice a day. Many from North India were not rice-eaters. The rest of the day, they could do nothing except to lie on their mats. The schools were hot and crowded, and in many there were already several men confined before they were accommodated there. If physical distancing was the aim of government, the open skies and sprawling confines of the riverbank surely afforded these destitute homeless men far better chances of escaping the contagion than the close human contact inescapable in the school shelters.

However, the main reason the men ran away was that they were desperately lonely, longing for rough-hewn brotherhood and the familiar stretches of the Pushta – unsanitary, inhospitable, strewn with excreta and waste, smoky from the burning corpses of the city’s largest cremation ground, but still the only place in the world that they knew as home.

[Also read the report by Supriya Sharma and Vijayta Lalwani Moved from Yamuna bank, 400 workers battle mosquitoes in school near Delhi’s largest garbage dump.]

Read other articles in the Lockdown Crisis series here.