Delhi Riots: A month later homeless -jobless victims have a new fear – Coronavirus
They are afraid of the global outbreak of Coronavirus. But more existential questions keep them busy and vulnerable. Staying back at the riot relief camps is a risky task. But returning to home is a tougher call. When the world is shifting to ‘work from home’ mode, the Delhi riot victims neither have work nor home to go back to.
Shaheen, a 15-year-old, knows the basics of the global outbreak of Covid-19. “We should avoid crowded spaces, being in public. It increases the risks of spreading Coronavirus,” she said. She sanitises her hands regularly, carries a mask and asks her family to take precautionary measures. But Shaheen and her family don’t have much of a choice about being in a crowded place. “We don’t have a home,” she completes the sentence after a pause , “anymore.”
Shaheen along with her father Shaan Mohammad, mother Ruqshana, elder sister and two brothers have been living in Mustafabad’s Idgah riot relief camp in North East Delhi. Her house was looted and set on fire during the Delhi riots. Now, despite realising the risks of being in such a crowded space, the family has chosen not to go back to their own house located in North East Delhi’s Shiv Vihar locality.
“We would have been safer at home. There is a lack of sanitation here, it is difficult to take all the precautions required, but going back seems less of an option,” Shaheen responded in eloquent English. The class 11 student of a Delhi government school narrates how her 9-year-old brother Ayaan gets post-riot traumatic triggers even at the mention of home.
“My wife took Ayaan to our house once. And the very night he had a high fever. He had stood witness to cylinder blasts in neighbourhoods and houses being set on fire,” 48-year-old Shaan said. “He starts crying when we talk about returning home. Nothing is more important to me than my children; hence I have decided to take a house on rent.”
A bakery businessman by profession, Shaan has not been able to reboot his and the family’s life ever since the riots hit Delhi’s North-East district on February 23. When and where to start is the question that looms over the family.
The Delhi riots – which claimed 53 lives – have left hundreds of families homeless. At least 502 house owners have filed petitions for compensation. The list of those living in rented apartments is separate. Their business has been destroyed by the fire of the riots. That also means they are jobless. Many of them are searching for a rented apartment. A herculean task awaits them: rebuilding their ransacked and charred houses.
This is a common challenge that every family living in these relief camps share. And in the wake of Coronavirus, they have become even more vulnerable.
Idgah being vacated in the wake of Coronavirus
On Sunday, India observed Janata Curfew following the appeal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Like the rest of the country, Delhiwallahs too came to their balconies to ring the bells and beat the drums. Coronavirus, quarantine and sanitation: these are three keywords which have been doing the rounds for the past couple of weeks.
The global pandemic might have blurred Delhi’s memories of the riots. But the riot-affected areas of North East Delhi will take months to get back on track.
In the past one month, 62-year-old Wakeel Ahmed saw his house being ransacked and burnt down, strangers reaching out to help him and how it feels to stay in a relief camp.
During the riots, when he ran for his life, strangers from his community in Chaman Park locality opened their doors for him and his family. Ahmed said, “We didn’t wish to give them more inconvenience. Hence, the day this relief camp started, I along with my family shifted here.”
Mustafabad’s Idgah camp was one the biggest riot relief facilities put together by the Delhi government and the Wakf Board. It gave shelter to between 850 and 900 families at the peak of the riots. Now the families have started moving out.
Reaching the Idgah didn't mean the end of their troubles. Two weeks after the riots, Delhi was lashed with untimely rains. “We spent the first night waiting for the rains to stop. They brought these wooden beds the next morning. When the rains lashed again, these cots were allotted to us.” said Ahmed, sharing his experience.
And now that the rains are gone, the Coronavirus outbreak has triggered a sense of fear. “The authorities have told us – those who can leave or want to leave are allowed to do so.” The government is providing three months of ration, cots and mattresses to each family moving out of the camp.
He said for many that’s not a viable option either. “We are afraid that the police might round up the young boys. Atleast at the Idgah our sons and grandchildren are safe from the police crackdown,” Ahmed said. A daily-wage worker, Ahmed used to live in Shiv Vihar’s Lane number two.
Sufiya Khanam, 39, has a similar worry. Her family used to live in a rented apartment in Shiv Vihar’s Ambika Vihar colony.
She challenged the volunteers and Idgah committee members who have been persuading the victims to vacate the camp in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak.
“They are telling us – Jao, Jao (leave the camp). Par kahan jayen ye to batao (But where should we go?),” she asked in front of a committee member. “I have heard that the rallies (by right-wing fringe) are still being conducted in our locality and that the police is rounding up Muslim boys. My 17-year-old son Mudashir has some hearing issues. If we step out, he might get in trouble as he won’t even realise when and why the police is rounding up Muslim boys,” Khanam told Asiaville.
But she did acknowledge the risk they are taking by choosing to stay at the relief camp. “There is the fear of Coronavirus. We know it could spread quickly in places like this. Had we been at home, we could done handwashing and sanitising properly. How do we take precautions in a crowded place like this?” she said.
For women, life has been even harsher at the relief camp. There is only one toilet van stationed outside the Idgah. And four bathrooms were installed inside the women’s section. “The washrooms are in a filthy state, the MCD (civic body) hardly cleans them properly. Neither have we residents kept them clean. Many women have fallen sick due to this,” said Raveena Parveen, a 22-year-old riot victim living at the camp.
Khatoon went on to share the details of their plight. “Several of us have suffered rashes. We have health issues due to lack of sanitisation.”
This further increases the health risks for these women.
They claimed that while the government and medical staff distributed masks at the relief camp, sanitisation remains a big concern.
“We have been provided bathing soap,” says 25-year-old Acchi Khatoon. But she asks whether this would be sufficient to sanitise their hands and bodies to keep themselves safe.
Local Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) legislator Haji Yunus told Asiaville that “all precautionary measures have been taken considering the Coronavirus outbreak. We are providing them with masks and sanitisers.” He further added that they were convincing the victim families who could return to their homes to do so.
But the residents and even the Idgah committee members have a different story to share.
“When the government has done nothing to save them (riot-victims) from Corona, what can we do or provide?,” Hazi Naaem Malik, a 48-year-old Idgah committee member told Asiaville.
Malik was persuading the riot victims to leave the compound as soon as possible with a promise that they will be provided with ration for three months and their compensation cheques will be delivered at home.
“Ek hadsa (riots) pehle ho chuka hai, fir dubara ek aur hadsa na ho jae (They have already suffered one tragedy (the riots). We don’t want them to be exposed to another,” Malik said.
First riots took their toll, now corona will keep them unemployed
But Acchi Khatoon has a counter to Malik’s appeal. “First the riots took away our opportunities to work, and now there won’t be any work available due to Corona,” she said.
Khatoon, who has five children to take care of, further added, “they can choose to lock down the city but can we put locks on our stomachs? Without jobs, we will die of hunger.”
Someone like 60-year-old Asmat Bano is even more forthright: We have three choices and each of them could lead us to death. We can choose to die of hunger, Corona or in their (rioters) hands.
As per the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government, compensation claims for 1,063 shops have been received so far. And the payments for 692 claims have been fully settled.
The government’s policy is yet to accommodate the massive job losses triggered by the riots. For instance, e-rickshaws and carts of street vendors were the easiest targets during the violence. And yet as per the Delhi government records, only nine claims for e-rickshaws have been filed so far. The victims are yet to claim compensation for their losses.
Naseem, a 29-year-old riot victim, worked as a tailor in Mustafabad. “Kaam band hai. Apna ek teen manzil ka makaan tha Shiv Vihar mein. Usme dangaiyon ne loot karne ke baad cylinder blast kar diya (I have lost my job. We owned a three-storey house in Shiv Vihar. It was first looted and later the rioters triggered a gas cylinder blast inside the house.) ”
Many of them have even lost their regular jobs. Mohammad Raaes, 44, used to work at an Iron factory in Delhi. He couldn’t go back to work due to the riots and now there is no option left. “Right now my priority is to keep my children safe. I have taken a rented apartment in Babu Nagar and will be out of this camp as soon as possible,” Raaes said. The question of employment bothers him too.
Returning to “homes”
It took three days for the rioters to turn their homes into debris. Now, after one month, the victims are struggling to remove the ash from their houses, where the stench of charred properties makes sure they will not forget the riots. Central Reserve Police Force personnel are still deployed in the neighbourhood.
The victims return to their homes in the daytime to make sure they are not absent when any government official visits for survey or inspection.
The residents near Shiv Vihar’s Auliya Mosque have written their names along with their phone numbers outside their houses.
Islam Khan, a local, said his house needs heavy reconstruction. “It is unsafe to stay in these buildings. But we can’t even keep staying in a relief camp or at our relatives’. Sooner or later all of us will have to return to our homes,” he said.
He points at the house of his neighbor who ran a scrap business of computer hard disks. “The couple earlier used to live here on rent. And they managed to buy this property barely three years back. Now it will take months to bring back their lives back on tracks.”
Those who have not received full compensation are yet to remove the debris of the arson from their houses. They believe removing the debris or beginning the construction work before the compensation is fully paid – might create problems for them.
According to the Delhi government data, so far claims have been received from 502 households. Of this, only 487 have been fully compensated. But those like Islam Khan claim to have received only Rs 25,000 as interim relief so far.
As we walked down the lane, 26-year-old Anees was returning from the Idgah camp on his bike. “I have got the ration supplies for a few days, a cot and two mattresses.” He said keeping the family in the relief camp during the Coronavirus outbreak wasn’t a viable option for him.
The house next to his was of Mohammad Raaes. His wife Rizwana Bano, 30, unpacked the bags of ration provided by the government for vacating the Idgah camp. “On the day of the riots, I along with my children had fled to my parent’s house in Faridabad,” she said. However, her husband – who works as a supplier to grocery shops - chose to stay at the Idgah camp. “As the situation improved, and the fear of this pandemic increased, we decided to return home.”
Bano hopes they can restart their lives, but the fear of riots is yet to leave them completely. “We are sure about our safety as long as these security personnel are here. Uske baad kya hoga, ye nahi pata (“We don’t know what will happen after that.”)
They are, all of them, indeed worried about the global outbreak of Coronavirus. But more basic existential matters keep them busy. And vulnerable.