Revisiting the scene of the shocking December demolition of hutments on railway land.

Nowhere people A slumdweller rebuilds his shanty in the same spot as before; a toddler covered in cement dust plays on the railway tracks. Photo: Paromita Chatterjee

Large stretches of land near Delhi’s Shakur Basti railway station are dotted with small shacks, rebuilt after the brutality. Goods trains stop a little ahead of the platform for loading and unloading cement sacks. The dust settles on the narrow streets, thousands of jhuggis and in the lungs of labourers.

The number of hutments varies, depending on who you ask. Residents claim the figure is close to 1,700. Many of the people here do piecework for private contractors to whom the task of loading-unloading has been outsourced.

The trains usually come in the dead of night, around 2 am. Teams of workers are paid 2,000 per wagon, the payment to be divided up. Indian Railways takes no responsibility for the working conditions or health of workers.

It has been 15 days since the Railway bulldozed the settlement, the last of many such demolitions. Two things galvanised the media attention garnered by the bulldozers this time. The residents were left in the chilling cold of December, with hardly a cover over their heads.

The second was the death of a six-month- old baby girl, allegedly during the demolition. “If it wasn’t for the baby’s death, who would have cared for us?” asks a resident.

A week after the demolition, a few officials conducted a survey of the residents. Those who were present got an identification number and later a weekly ration of 3 kg rice, 1 kg dal and masala. Those who were away do not receive these rations, even two weeks down the line.

Piram Bai, a 40-year-old widow, is one of those who lost out. Piram fishes out her bundle of identity cards including Voter’s ID and Aadhar from inside her blouse. “There is nowhere else to keep them,” she explains. The address reads Cement Siding, Shakur Basti.

She has not received any assistance since her jhuggi was demolished. She now stays in makeshift tent consisting of three bamboo sticks – two vertical and one horizontal – with a cheap black tarpaulin thrown over it. She is far from the only one. The residents claim that around half of the people were not covered by the official survey

Savitri, 30, has recurrent headaches because of the ubiquitous cement dust. On the day of the demolition, she had one of her attacks and was barely conscious. She lost all belongings and now stays in a similar tent besides Piram’s.

“Policemen are not willing to listen to us,” says Mohammed Kaleem, who says he is 51, although he looks much older. “I have been living here for 30 years and have a Voter’s ID since 1991. But they are still not giving me food and blankets,” he says.

Railway employees regard the inhabitants as an annoyance, at best. Employees sit in a cosy room, chatting in a circle. “They should be shot dead,” says one, using Hindi expletives to describe the beleaguered community. “You people come here and give them undue importance,” says another. The employees accuse the people of stealing everything from water to coal.

“They are responsible for all the crime. What else do they do?” “Maybe 5 percent of them are poor”. Challenged on this estimate, he is willing to raise the figure to 10 percent. But why do this in December? “If it was your private property that somebody had encroached on, would you care whether it is December?”

During his visit, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal promised alternative accommodation to everyone in the basti. “Government land is your land also,” he reportedly told them. The displaced, understandably, are sceptical about the promises made by the politicians.

“That day, many big politicians came here, so did every news channel in the country. But they were only here because the girl had died,” says Purobind, a resident. The six-month-old infant had died when a bundle of clothes fell on her on the day of the demolition. The police claim that the girl had died three hours before the demolition started at 11:30 am.

The girl’s grandfather Mohammad Kareem tells Tehelka, “The policemen came at 8 am. They thumped on the metal walls of the jhuggi with their lathis. The baby was sleeping on the floor. In the commotion, while we were gathering our belongings, a bundle of clothes fell on the baby. When we found her, she was unconscious.”