An anxious-looking Mohammed Sheikh (35) stands at the back of a long queue. He wraps his shawl a little more tightly around his body and stares at the bank officials ahead of him.
On Monday, Sheikh, along with 1,500 others lost their shanties to a massive fire that raged through their slum cluster in outer Delhi’s Rithala.
The next day, Sheikh, though devastated, queued up along with hundreds of others like him to fill up a form, open a new bank account and get a compensation of Rs 25,000 from the government.
“Will anyone rebuild my house? What about the school fees of my three children? I have lost all my cash. My wife’s jewellery too was destroyed in the fire. I do not know how I will manage after the compensation money is over,” says Sheikh, as locals standing near him nod in agreement.
A few steps from where Sheikh stood, a large open ground lay empty with charred debris. Thirty six hours ago, the ground was home to at least 1,500 people, all of who were suddenly rendered homeless.
The fire broke out around 12.35am on Monday. Though fire officials say that the cause of the fire had not been ascertained yet, locals believe that a burning transformer could have caused it. No casualty or injuries were reported in the incident.
The slum cluster in Rithala is over 30 years old and has been home to migrants that work as sanitation workers, scrap dealers and domestic helps. A majority of the place’s population is from Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar.
On Monday morning when fire tenders reached the spot, angry locals allegedly welcomed them by pelting stones for being three hours late.
After the flames were doused, hundreds of locals were seen sifting through the charred debris of their houses, in the hope to find their valuables. The inhabitants now fear that they will have to spend their nights by the roadside. Most people complained that most of their documents, including Aadhar cards, bank documents, voter ID cards, cash and even jewellery, were destroyed in the fire.
“The only thing everyone has is the clothes they were wearing when they ran out of their homes. I was sleeping when people began screaming about the fire. I only had time to grab the hands of my children and run away. My neighbours didn’t help me. Everyone was running for their lives,” said Heena Begum (30).
After her house was gutted, Begum and her three children slept in a small tent shared by 15 people. Three blankets and a worn out carpet was all the occupants had been provided. For relieving herself, Begum went to a nearby dump yard in the dark, after having asked an acquaintance to look after her children.
“One blanket is being shared by at least three people. The public toilet that we had was also gutted in the fire. So now everyone is relieving themselves in the open. I do not have money to travel to my relative’s home. All the cash and jewellery I had were destroyed in the fire,” says Begum.
Sixteen-year-old Rinky Khatun who is preparing for her Class 10 board examinations next year, said that it was minutes after she took a break from her books that the tragedy struck.
“My books, notes and school uniform are all gone. The pre-board exams will start in December. I studied throughout the year. Now how will I give exams without my textbooks?” she asked.