Surendra Kumar (37) and his wife Rajeshwari Devi (34) have spent two weeks shivering under a shared blanket on the pavement outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
They are among some 200 other poor patients and their relatives, who come from other states, and are forced to stay on the pavements for the want of free accommodation.
More than the cold, they worry about getting robbed by drunkards, who occasionally stalk the streets in search of easy pickings from the hapless families.
“We can’t stay inside the hospital at night, so we sleep on the footpath at night. It’s not safe, the local goons get drunk at times and threaten to beat us, so we just keep moving to hide from them,” said Kumar, a farmer from Kanpur, who is in Delhi to get his wife treated for uterine bleeding.
“There are some men who regularly get drunk and create a ruckus here. Once, they were teasing a girl and I stepped in. So, in the night when I was sleeping, they drenched me. It was already so cold, I was shivering under the two blankets I had brought from home,” said Uma Devi, 35 from Patna, Bihar. She comes to Delhi for eight to 10 days every month for chemotherapy.
Lalit Gupta, a tea-stall owner in the area, said, “Men live here all year round. And, during the winters, they hoard blankets that people donate. Then, at night they sell the blankets for Rs 40 to Rs 50 to the poor patients and drink and smoke up using the money.”
Some manage to dodge hospital guards and spend the night on the hospital campus. “When the guards asked us to leave the waiting hall at around 9 o’clock, we hid behind the building and stayed the night,” said Roshan Khatun, 22, who came to Delhi two days ago to get a neck tumour treated. “My mother developed fever in the cold, but we’re in Delhi for at least 20 more days and though we have relatives here, we cannot overstay our welcome,” Khatun said.
The hospital has a waiting-hall for the family of patients coming to the emergency department that can seat about 300 and another 100-seat hall for relatives of patients in the neuro or cardio ICUs.
The hospital also has night shelters for relatives of patients admitted in the hospital. However, it is not enough for the families of the 2,000 people admitted in the premier hospital at any given time.
At Dr Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, which has 1,500 beds and 5,000 OPD footfall, only three beds are occupied in their 88-bed dharmashala inaugurated around two weeks ago for the family of outstation patients. The benches and compound outside the emergency department are full of people with no place to stay.
“My daughter is in the ward with the baby and since only one relative can stay in the dharmashala for three days, I’m here while my son-in-law sleeps on a bench outside,” said Kusum Dixit, who travelled from Meerut for the treatment of her grandson, who was born pre-term with a hole in the heart.
At Lok Nayak Hospital, there is a 40-bed dharmashala for patients who cannot move on their own – orthopaedics or neurosurgery patients and those who have recently had a surgery – and their attendants. Most patients sleep in waiting halls.
The hospital sees about 7,000 patients in its out-patient department every day, with at least 30% of them being from neighbouring states. “We do not have enough space to accommodate everyone on the hospital premises,” said a doctor from the hospital, adding that the patients can stay in Delhi-government-run night shelters.