Life goes on as usual at Delhi’s Shakur Basti where a demolition drive rendered thousands homeless and saw the controversial death of a six-month-old girl. Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com visits the Delhi slum where the administration demolished 1,200 shanties.
Mohammed Anwar and Mohammed Alam, both residents of Shakur Basti in northwest Delhi, are surrounded by a small crowd. The difference in these two crowds cannot be starker.
Anwar had people visiting his house to grieve the death of his six-month-old daughter.
The gathering at Alam’s is to partake in the joy over his wedding. Anwar is sitting out in the open, his relatives and friends forming a circle around a small bonfire to keep them warm; his wife Safeena sits outside what is left of her home, in complete darkness.
On Saturday, December 12, at about 9 in the morning, officials from the ministry of railways and the Delhi police demolished over 1,000 shanties that had encroached upon railway land and evicted those who were staying in them.
Anwar and Safeena had managed to pack whatever they could of their belongings, but a huge pile of clothes had fallen on Rukaiyya, their six-month-old daughter, the infant, choking her to death.
Safeena’s brother and Anwar’s relatives have been at the couple’s side every evening since to share their grief.
Around 500 metres away, inside a cement godown, Alam’s relatives and friends are a boisterous lot. Alam, who looks like he is only 15 or 16, is sitting cross-legged, nervously looking at a bed inside a makeshift tent that has been his house since last Saturday.
His house too faced the might of officialdom and crushed under a bulldozer.
Alam’s bride is sitting, surrounded by her relatives and friends, just a metre or so away from the groom’s party, separated by a torn purdah (curtain) that divides the women folk from the men.
The group is waiting for the qazi who would solemnise their wedding. Soon, he comes along and the excitement in the crowd increases.
Alam is unexpectedly coy and refuses to speak with anybody. The qazi runs through the rituals and the bride and groom soon become man and wife.
Alam’s friends and relatives make a beeline to greet him.
There is no house for Alam to take his bride to after marriage. The ramshackle cement godown will be their house for at least a month, say those who had gathered to witness the wedding, but even in this adversity life goes on as usual.
Right behind where Anwar and his relatives are sitting, a doctor appointed by Disha, a non-governmental organisation, is working under the lights of a smartphone, dispensing medicines to women, children and elderly. This is the only sign of order visible at Shakur Basti as the winter dusk brings darkness and chill along with it.
The Delhi government of Arvind Kejriwal has been working tirelessly, say residents of Shakur Basti, to provide them with relief and rehabilitation, which, of course, is still inadequate in the face of what these hapless people are going through.
The two cops stationed at the colony, just a minute away from Anwar’s house, are seeking comfort from the warmth of a small fire lit up using waste wood and dried leaves. A little girl, with her sibling on her lap, gives them silent company.
There is pitch darkness all around as the demolition squad had uprooted the electricity lines too.
Mohammed Javed and Rehman too have lost their homes to the madness that played out last Saturday morning.
“They plastered the notices in our area on the evening of jumma (Friday), December 11,” says Rehman a bit angrily.
“The very next morning the bulldozers and JCBs were all out, along with 300 cops, crushing our homes,” adds Javed.
Both Javed, 28, and Rehman, 26, were born in Shakur Basti and had seen such demolition drives at least thrice in their lifetime.
But nothing was as merciless as the one last Saturday.
"They should have at least given us a 10-day notice to move our belongings and make alternative arrangements,” says Javed, who works in a factory nearby just like Rehman, both casual labourers.
They say while no political leader had the humanity to be at their side when the demolition continued through the day, they began their one-upmanship next day onwards.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi came; a few Aam Aadmi Party leaders along with the party’s local legislator, Satyender Kumar Jain, visited the slum-dwellers but could not offer any concrete help to them.
“Now, we at least have these mobile toilets,” says Javed, en route to Anwar’s house, who along with Rehman guided this correspondent to his house under darkness.
Like Javed and Rehman, Anwar too is a casual labourer, working as a loader at a nearby factory for which he is paid Rs 250 to Rs 300 a day.
“Look at this place,” he says, pointing to the cement dust all around coming from hundreds of trucks lined up along Shakur Basti.
“This is the poison that we have been breathing for my entire life,” he says.
Though Safeena is inconsolable after the death of their youngest daughter, Anwar has begun to pick up the threads of his broken life. He too is bereaved but his eyes aren’t moist.
“I have two more children to look after,” he says, pointing to his son Noor, 6, and daughter Zainab Khatun, 5.
“I can’t forget that morning,” he says, recollecting what happened on the morning of the demolitions.
“When I realised that Rukaiyya was nowhere to be seen I panicked and ran back home, only to see her lying motionless under a pile of cloth,” he says.
Anwar alleges that when he was taking his daughter to Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital, in the hope that Rukaiyya could still be alive, he was apprehended by cops who threatened to file a case against him. They alleged that he had not called the police to register a case before he set out with his daughter to the hospital.
“The doctors told me my daughter was dead on arrival,” he says.
Again, when he was about to take his daughter’s body back, the cops intervened and took him forcibly, he alleges, to Sanjay Gandhi Hospital.
Once there, the doctor declared her dead and asked him to sign on a piece of paper that said he had allowed the doctors to conduct an autopsy on his daughter.
When Anwar protested the highhandedness of the cops, he says they threatened to file a case against him, blaming him for his daughter’s death.
After filling the form Anwar was asked to come again the next day. When he and his wife reached Sanjay Gandhi Hospital the next morning, the doctors showed him his daughter’s body and then took her for the post-mortem.
However, Anwar’s travails had not ended. After the autopsy, Anwar was denied permission by the cops to take Rukaiyya’s body to Shakur Basti to perform the last rites, fearing that it could lead to a law and order problem at the colony.
“The cops threatened us again that they would file a case of criminal negligence against us,” says Safeena’s brother, who stays in a nearby slum.
However, the cops relented after Anwar said that he would take his daughter directly to the crematorium if a Maulana said he could do so. Thankfully, a senior cop intervened and allowed Anwar to take his daughter’s body home and from there, Rukaiyya was laid to rest at a nearby kabristan.
“We are poor and illiterate, there is nobody to help us demand our rights,” says Anwar about his family’s plight and his desperation after his daughter’s death.
Anwar and Safeena would soon be alone after a few days, with Noor Mohd, Zainab Khatun, a broken house and a broken life to fend for themselves.