You would have seen them often, paddling rickshaws near Metro stations or walking up to your car windows and vending odd items at traffic signals. You wouldn’t have given them a second glance.
On Sunday, India decided to count them as its people and give them a place in census numbers, even though they never found a place to live. For them, home is a worn-out quilt that keeps them alive on a chilly winter night under an open sky. And with that, an usually nameless, homogeneous mass of people living on the fringes became individuals with faces and stories.
There was, for instance, Iqbal Mohammad, forty-something, from Ferozepur, Uttar Pradesh, who arrived in Delhi a year ago with bare essentials stuffed in a duffel bag.
“I was a rickshaw-puller for sometime. But ever since I fractured my leg a few months ago, I’ve been out of job,” he said. He uses the duffel bag for pillow at Urdu Park next to Jama Masjid. Like many others, he sleeps there at night.
There was Sanam, a transgender, who was eager to get herself enumerated. “I came here from Patna, Bihar, after parents died a few years ago. I live here at night. During the day I do odd jobs,” she said. “Count me. I have never been counted.”
They may not have an address but they have their favourite spots to sleep. “I would not want to sleep in any other park,” Sanam said.
For many, the struggle has taken up most of their lives. “I raised my four children being on the streets here after my husband died,” said Yasmin, who claimed her age was 32 much to the disbelief of women enumerators since she looked much older. At the tents put up by NGOs for the homeless during winter near Jama Masjid, Yasmin has taken a job of housekeeping so her children can have a better future.
Her daughter Shabnam, 13, goes to school in Ballimaran in the Walled City. “I have heard about the census on TV and also in my class,” she said, while putting her younger sister to sleep.
Between two rows of bedding inside the tent, where around 50 homeless sleep, a 21-inch flat-screen TV finds pride of place. About 15 children of all ages are glued to it. They are oblivious to the heavy stench of unwashed bedrolls, urine and general stuffiness inside the tent. There are three such tents huddled together. Residents say they like it there.
“At least it’s better than nothing. The tents will go after the winter. We will be out in the parks and pavements then,” said Babloo, who works as a shutter mechanic in Chandni Chowk.
But finding them at the tents was easy. Reaching those who don’t care for tents was the difficult part.
The beggar who passes out under a railway bridge after an overdose of heroin, the petty thief who snatches for a living, the rag-picker who searches for a corner near railway station — most of them got registered.
“The homeless sleep wherever it is safe. But what is safe for them may not be an easily accessible place for you and me. So many enumerators, especially the ladies, got a bit uncomfortable sometimes,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of NGO Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, which helped the census department in mapping Delhi into areas most populated by the homeless.
For the enumerators, the math often didn’t add up. “Their stories are often felt like plain lies. Many also lied about their age and occupation,” said Salma Fatima, an enumerator. “But then the good part is, they all wanted to be counted.”