How the other half lives in Delhi: 4 stories of poverty, crushed dreams
Most of the city’s poor are migrants — they constitute about 33% of the population of Delhi — who come to the city attracted by the promise of a secure livelihood and better life. But their hopes and dreams are, more often than not, belied. A peek into how they get by
Last month, Delhi, the second wealthiest city in the country — with a total wealth of $450 billion according to the World Wealth Report — was shocked by the starvation deaths of three little girls aged 2, 6, and 8 years.
The girls’ father, who plied a rickshaw, was from West Bengal and moved to Delhi about 15 years ago. He hasn’t been found since the deaths, which medical experts have confirmed were caused by malnutrition. The mother was found to be mentally unstable.
Many find it unthinkable that anyone can starve to death in the capital. Such deaths may be rare, but facts tell a deeply disturbing story of poverty in the city of 17 million people. Almost 1.7 million live below the poverty line, or survive on less than RS 1,134 per month, according to the latest Delhi Statistical Handbook, which is based on 2011 census data. A 2015 report by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Delhi, said the city has about 6,343 slums with 1.02 million households.
Most of the city’s poor are migrants — they constitute about 33% of the population of Delhi — who come to the city attracted by the promise of a secure livelihood and better life. But their hopes and dreams are, more often than not, belied.
“When I first came here 10 years back, I was young and energetic and thought Delhi is a big city and I would be able to make something of myself, but look where I have ended up,” says Prem Chand, a casual labourer at Bara Tooti, one of the city’s oldest labour chowks, in the heart of the city. “All I own are the clothes I am wearing; I sleep on the footpath; and I have no one to share my pain with.” Prem Chand’s story illustrates that poverty does not just engender a myriad deprivations, but also a stifling solitude. Just talk to the men of Bara Tooti, which is like an open-air museum of shattered dreams and defeated aspirations of the poor.
Mohammad Abbas, a bespectacled rickshaw puller who talks like a philosopher, says the biggest disadvantages poverty causes is that it ‘deprives people of opportunities’. “I wanted to study, but could not. I could not send my children to school beyond class 6. So, people like me need some superhuman effort or extraordinary luck to break free from the vicious cycle of poverty,” he says. “Many young poor people come to the capital thinking they can work hard and strive for success, but end up just struggling for survival. And Delhi can be shockingly indifferent to them.”
Poverty, he adds, can also redefine the meaning of relationships. “My family lives in the village. In 42 years of my marriage, I have not lived with my wife for 42 months, and that is the biggest regret of my life.”
In fact, Delhi has countless stories like this. Here are four of them.
60, rickshaw puller, Mayur Vihar
Mohammed Abbas, a rickshaw puller in east Delhi’s Mayur Vihar, loves his hat, which is his most prized possession. “This was bought in Paris,” he says, as he takes it off to show us. “No, don’t be confused; mine is not a riches-to-rags story. A kind, old gentleman gifted it to me four years back. He said his son had brought it from Paris for him,” says Abbas as he waits for passengers at the Metro station.
A few minutes into the conversation and it becomes clear that Abbas is a great storyteller, and loves to tell his own too. Born in a village in Begusarai district of Bihar, he used to pull a rickshaw in Kolkata before someone told him that he could make more money in the national capital. So, he arrived in Delhi on a foggy January morning in 1992 with a satchel of clothes. “I was barely making a couple of thousands in Kolkata and it was hard to support my family in the village. Besides, pulling a rickshaw by hand was breaking my body,” he says.
In Delhi, he lived with a relative in Tilak Nagar in west Delhi. “But within a few days, he asked me to look for my accommodation. I didn’t know anyone in the city, so I moved to Usmanpur and requested a rickshaw garage owner to allow me to sleep in his garage. Thankfully, he agreed.”
A month in Delhi and Abbas realised that the shift to Delhi was not going to change his life. He was not wrong.
After 26 years of hauling rickshaw on the city roads, all that he owns is a few utensils, two shirts, two pairs of trousers. “The only additional assets that I have collected since I came here are a mobile phone, and, of course, this hat, ” he says. “And, yes after many years of sleeping in the rickshaw garage , I have moved into a shared 6x6 ft rented room, for which I pay ₹800. Unlike in Kolkata, people in Delhi haggle even for five rupees, not realising pulling a rickshaw wracks one’s body.”
Abbas got married in 1976 and had his first child in 1978. His dependants include a disabled son, a daughter-in-law, a daughter and four grandchildren, who live in their village. “I manage to send them only ₹3,000 a month. In 42 years of my marriage, I have not spent 42 months with my wife and children,” he says. “ I could not afford to take them to Kolkata, and I cannot afford to bring them to Delhi. I have had to spend my entire life away from my wife and children for a few thousand rupees.”
Abbas leaves his window-less, hovel-like room in a dingy street in Patparganj village at 7 am, has a breakfast of tea and biscuits, his lunch and dinner at a roadside dhabha any time between 1 and 3 pm (each meal costs ₹30) and returns home at 10pm. “At 60, it is becoming difficult to haul a rickshaw. Sometimes, my body just gives up and I don’t feel like stepping out of my room. But there is no retirement for poor people,” he says. “ In fact, there is no childhood, no youth, no old age for us. You remain a labourer from the beginning to end.”
Abbas says that while he continues to work as hard as ever, the advent of the battery-operated rickshaws in Delhi has led to a steep fall in his earnings. “Earlier I used to make about ₹300 to ₹340; now barely ₹150 to ₹200 a day, of which ₹40 goes towards rickshaw rent,” he says. Abbas never went to school, but he says he has taught himself a bit of English. “I sign my name in English only and can read all English signboards. I learnt it by scrawling words and letters on dusty footpaths in Delhi. The rich don’t understand what you become in life is not always about ability; it is about opportunity and exposure. With a little luck on my side, I could have certainly done better.”
In his spare time, Abbas likes to listen to music. He also sings. “I mostly sing Mohammed Rafi songs. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I wish I had spent more time with my wife and children. I am 60 and I have spent the entire life living without her. I think I have been unfair to her, or perhaps life has been unfair to me.”
38, labourer, Bara Tooti Chowk
It has been a bad day for Prem Chand, a casual labourer at Bara Tooti Chowk Delhi, one of the city’s oldest labour chowks, where manual labourers, masons, porters and house painters gather every morning looking for work. On the day we met him, Prem Chand arrived at Bar Tooti at 7am, but could not find work. He made only ₹30 in the late afternoon by lending a helping hand to fellow labourers pushing a cart over a road that climbs from Sadar Bazar police station to Bara Tooti.
He is quite reticent, unwilling to talk. But after much prodding, he speaks.
“ I am a dog,” he says, looking blankly into space, his voice laced with pain and anger. “I don’t have work, or a home. I do not care if I die tomorrow. I am not married; my parents, siblings, have all died one by one.”
Prem Chand hails from a village in Shahjahanpur in Uttar Pradesh. His mother died when he was a toddler, his father remarried, his maternal uncle adopted him, and the uncle died when Prem Chand was still a child.
“ I could never go to school, though I wanted to. At 15, I first came to Delhi to find work. I stayed with a relative, but within a few days, he asked me to leave,” says Prem Chand.
Over the next few years, Prem Chand would come to Delhi , do odd jobs, and return after making some money. But ten years back, he decided to stay on, and has since pulled a rickshaw and, worked at construction sites as a casual labourer. “I don’t earn enough to rent a place and sleep on the rat and dirt-infested footpath at Bara Tooti,” he says showing a hand full of mosquito bites. “At night, ruffians steal my money.” So why does he not open a bank account? “I have no address, no identity card, so why will they open an account for me?”
Prem Chand says that when he first came to Delhi, he was pretty hopeful, had dreams of starting a small business, and marry. “But look where I have ended up. My only possessions are the clothes I am wearing; I wash and wear them every day. Now I think of survival, not success,” says Prem Chand, who eats at the Gurdwara Sis Ganj on the days he does not have work. “This city has no empathy for people like us.”
Talking of his life as a homeless labourer, he says there are times when he gets fever and doctors advise rest. “But can I rest? I keep working even when I am sick. We at Bara Tooti push our body to its limits every day,” he says. “A lot of people in Delhi believe we are all drunkards, but many like me drink not to get drunk, but to relieve the pain. The footpath is not the place to sleep when you are sick and have worked hard through the day.”
Delhi, Prem Chand says, is a ‘city of deceptions’. “Many people come to Delhi, young and hopeful. But their hopes are dashed sooner than they expected; they get old and die here on the footpath, unclaimed,” says Prem Chand. “I know in 15 years, I will meet the same fate.”
A roadside tailor, Mirdard Marg
For Idris Ansari, who hails from a village in Motihari district in Bihar, poverty is nothing but a quirk of fate. Ansari likes to often laugh at himself. “I guess I will be 50 or 55,” he says, when you ask him his age.
But he remembers that he came to Delhi in 1993, hoping to earn a decent living and improve the lot of his family. “I immediately fell in love with the city. I spent the first few days seeing all the sights; I thought I had come to the right place.”
But 25 years on, he has a different opinion. “This city, like all big cities, is very good at enticing you; it seems to offer many possibilities, but they never become a reality for most poor like me,” says Ansari who has worked as roadside tailor since he arrived in the capital. “ I have ended up as a much sought-after tailor of rickshaw pullers,” he laughs.
Ansari works at Mirdard Marg in central Delhi, where he comes every day with his sewing machine, and lives in a jhuggi in front of Mata Sundri college. He makes about ₹150 to ₹200 a day, saves and sends about ₹3,500 every month to his family back in his village — wife, two sons, aged 12 and 8, who go to a government school. He also has a married daughter. “It is so hard to save even ₹100 a day here. I live with eight other people in a 7 x 7 ft jhuggi, which is horribly hot these days. Each one of us contributes ₹300 towards the rent.
My wife has a hard time running the house with the money I send her,” he says.
Most of his customers, he says, are causal labourers and rickshaw pullers looking to have their clothes altered. “I charge RS 10 to 20, and sometimes they cannot afford even that much. Young rickshwallahs buy their clothes, jeans and T-shirts at the roadside markets. If these do not fit, I help them. They no longer want to wear-ill-fitting clothes,” says Ansari showing us a satchel full of old and new pairs of jeans. “But the older ones want me to keep mending their clothes till those are beyond repair. On certain clothes I have worked 20 times in two years, altering, stitching, over and over again,” says Ansari. “But I cannot alter their wretched lives; nor mine, for that matter,” he flashes his characteristic smile once again.
30, a Yamuna farmer
Dhruv Pal, 30, has lived in Delhi for the past 15 years, but has never been to Connaught Place, hardly 8 km from his hut on the Yamuna banks. “I have heard it is some big, expensive market; but I don’t have a reason to go there. I do all my shopping from a nearby roadside Monday market,” says Pal, lying on a cot under a guava tree in front of his mud and thatched hut in agricultural field. His 11-year-old son Vijay, dressed in his torn school uniform, is playing with his friends, all scantily dressed; his wife, Saroj is busy doing the laundry.
Pal is one of the hundreds of poor farmers, migrants from UP and Bihar, who grow vegetables such as cauliflower, okra, bitter gourd, carrot, and radish on rented agricultural fields on the banks of the Yamuna in east Delhi. But like Pal, most live in penury. His hut has a few utensils, a cot, a few clothes and a trunk.
“ I pay about ₹75,000 annually for the 12 bighas that I have rented, but I am lucky if I earn ₹70,000 to ₹80,000 in a year,” says Pal. “Yesterday, I had to borrow ₹500 from a neighbour.”
Pal says like farmers everywhere, he is exposed to the vagaries of the market, the weather, and an indifferent government. “Unlike rural farmers, who at least get some minimum support price for their crop from the government, we get nothing. During Holi, the price of the cauliflower dropped dramatically and I had to sell my crop at ₹3 per kilo and sustained heavy losses,” says Pal.
In 2013, Pal says he lost his entire crop and his hut to floods, and had to live, for over a month, on the Mayur Vihar-Noida link road in east Delhi. “We lived on the edge of the road, and I was afraid that my children might get crushed by the fast-moving vehicles,” says Pal. This year too, as the Yamuna swelled, he, like other Yamuna
farmers, were asked by the authorities to leave.
“But I only moved a box with our important belongings to a camp. We stayed put here; it is not easy to live on the road with school-going children.”
Pal says not just floods, his family also lives with the fear of his huts being demolished by the government. He has no idea whether the patch of land he cultivates belongs to the man he pays the rent, or to the Delhi Development Authority, which, he says, wants hundreds of families on the Yamuna floodplains to move elsewhere.
His hut has been bulldozed a few times in the past by the authorities. “I have nowhere to go, and nothing else to do. In a big city like Delhi, farmers have no identity and respect,” said Pal, “ The only benefits is that sometimes I go and sell my produce directly to people on cart, making about ₹300 a day , but it is just not enough to run a family of five and meet farm-related expenses.”
Pal has no electricity, water or gas connection . This is another India in the heart of the city — from his hut one can see the soaring skyline of Noida. As we talk to Pal, his son Vijay comes and tells him that he wishes to celebrate his birthday in school (Both the father and son are not quite sure when it is), but the father instantly shoots down the idea. “These are the useless rituals meant for the rich.”