Investigation: How a dead body led to fire at Delhi's night shelters
While governments are urging social distancing, at least 5000 homeless men are forced to live on the banks of the Yamuna. However, the administration continues to live in denial. An investigative account on what led to the rioting by the homeless at Kashmere Gate-Yamuna Pushta.
At around seven in the evening on Saturday, hundreds of homeless men were waiting anxiously on the banks of Yamuna. They had mixed feelings of fear, anger, and helplessness. In the middle of all this, a young man, probably in his early twenties, was rolling on the ground, and constantly laughing in his sleep, completely unaware of his surroundings. Right in front of him, 46-year-old Chhabi Lal had a greater worry to deal with – whether he would be served dinner that night or not.
A couple of hours back, this stretch on Delhi’s Yamuna Pushta had turned into a war zone. First, a dead body was recovered from the Yamuna, then began the stone pelting, and later three government run-night shelters were set on fire.
There are two versions to this story. The homeless allege that one of them had to jump into the Yamuna after the night shelter administration beat him up at lunch on Friday. He drowned and the night shelter staff tried to cover up the mess. When his decomposed body was recovered, the mayhem began.
Delhi Urban Shelter Improved Board (DUSIB), the government body under which this night shelter operates, is rejecting the claims, saying that the arson was the result of rumour mongering amongst those living on the banks of the Yamuna.
There is a third version of this story, as per the reportage of the big media houses. They allege that a fight broke out between homeless inmates of night shelters and they set their shelters on fire.
Two videos accessed by Asiaville makes it clear how the violence unfolded. In the first video, a group of men can be seen carrying a dead body, who is dressed in a grey shirt. They are moving towards the night shelters at the Pushta. In the other video, the homeless men can be seen vandalising the night shelters and resorting to arson.
Ironically, a few hours before the fight broke out at the night shelters located on Kashmere Gate – Yamuna Pushta, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had held a meeting with all the chief ministers of the states. They had strategised as to how to contain the spread of COVID-19, and how to ensure the safety of every citizen. All the measures that were spoken about hold no relevance when it comes to these homeless men living in the national capital.
How one of Asia’s biggest homes for the homeless turned into a war zone
A few kilometres from the Prime Minister’s residence is one of the biggest stretches for the homeless in Asia. At Kashmere Gate-Yamuna Pushta, on the banks of the Yamuna, live thousands of migrant workers, daily wagers, construction labourers, rag-pickers, and vagabonds. Some of them also work as labourers for contractors handling parties and large gatherings in the national capital.
The Yamuna forms the wall on the side, and on the right side the Nigam Bodh Gath (Hindu cremation ground) marks the end of the territory. On the left side, the DMRC substation keeps them protected. The night shelters here ensure the supply of food and other emergency services if need be.
A deep sense of distrust and anger exists between the hundreds who live inside the night shelters, and the thousands who spend their days out in the open on the banks of the Yamuna. For them, it’s the eternal battle between the "haves and have-nots".
For those living on the banks, the residents of night shelters are a symbol of the privileged class and those who align with the system. “They (shelter staff) allow only inside the shelters (those) that are subservient to them. Many of the residents are addicts who gang up against other members to snatch money,” Ramesh Marathi – who has spent more than a decade on the banks –said. Marathi tries to go inside the shelters only during the winters. “The caretakers of the shelter misbehave with us, and their henchmen (residents) help them to beat anyone who raises a voice.”
Even though they live in an abject state of poverty, class makes itself felt in this section of society as well, and the divisions it creates exists and thrives at these shelters. While a majority of the homeless belong to different parts of the country, there are others who have homes in Delhi where they don’t wish to return. COVID-19, social distancing, and sanitisation are the immediate concerns for them.
At the end of the day, the fight for bread trumps everything else.
The eight night shelters located here are run by the Delhi government’s DUSIB. Even on normal days, this cluster of shelters house one of the biggest groups of homeless in Delhi, and a much larger crowd of homeless men live in the open, sleeping rough on the banks of the Yamuna. Ever since the lockdown was implemented, the number of homeless crowds here has been swelling. Their movements have been restricted, and they have lost whatever meagre income they earned doing odd jobs. For now, the only activity they perform – thrice a day – is to queue up for food.
Safe Approach, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), is responsible for the management of the day-to-day affairs of these shelters. Nishu Tripathi, the NGO’s representative, told Asiaville that after the lockdown was imposed, they have been preparing food for not less than 5,000 people thrice a day.
While the NGO has 24 employees involved in the management of these night shelters, roughly 20 staff have been hired to prepare and distribute food to the homeless and to those in need.
And to ensure that the crowd - not less than 5000 homeless men - maintain social distancing while eating their meals, roughly 15-20 civil defence personnel and half a dozen police personnel have been deployed here.
It was during the Friday lunch that the scuffle broke out at the night shelter. According to Ram Singh, who is part of the canteen staff, a young man in his twenties attacked him with a knife while he was distributing bananas. “The attack was unprovoked. I was distributing bananas when he slit my palm with a knife,” Singh said showing his right-hand which was bandaged. “As the others tried to catch him, he ran towards the Yamuna and jumped into the river.”
Safe Approach’s Tripathi said that the police had carried out an hours-long search operation using boats, but to no avail.
During a lockdown that has been imposed because of a pandemic, thousands of homeless men are living in cramped conditions, under a great deal of stress. When one of them jumps into the Yamuna and drowns, it creates a great deal of tension.
We spoke to several groups of homeless men seeking details as to why the fight broke out. Each of them responded by saying that the night shelter staff had beaten up one of the homeless residents, who had died after jumping into the Yamuna. The violence broke out when the body was recovered today (April 11th 2020). However, none of them had seen the body, nor could they identify the person who had died.
Pintu Verma, a 27-year-old daily wager, led us to the group of men who were hiding behind the Delhi Jal Board pipeline nearing the banks of the river. Verma said, “We have seen the body from our eyes. Yesterday instead of recovering the body, they (the rescue team) moved the body towards the monastery (a few hundred metres away from the night shelters). And dumped it underwater.” He further claimed that the body had resurfaced on Saturday noon, after it had swollen.
After a long time spent persuading them, the men behind the pipeline started to open up. The first person to speak up was 22-year-old Akash Singh, a resident of Karnal who has been living at this stretch of the Pushta for nearly five years now. “I had picked up the body,” Singh said.
Then Adil identified the man who had jumped into the Yamuna as Suraj.
“He was not a regular resident here. He has been living here for the past 15 days – after the lockdown was announced,” Adil said. “He must be in his mid-twenties. Suraj had a bit of dark complexion and belonged to Uttar Pradesh’s Banaras. His parents were dead but he had sisters living there. At least that’s what he told us.”
Adil and his group used to play gilli-danda (Indian game) with this man identified as Suraj.
“Yesterday, someone had thrown a stone while the food was being distributed during lunch. It hit the water tanker and bounced back to the civil defence personnel. They thought it was Suraj and tried to pounce at him,” Adil said.
Pintu and Singh added, “The attack by staff members on the residents and non-residents is quite normal here at the Pushta. If you are caught, they could beat you black and blue. In order to escape the beating, he jumped into the Yamuna.”
To corroborate the claims of beating, 28-year-old Vikas, from Bihar’s Patna, showed us his wounds. “To ensure social distancing, the civil defence volunteers had hit my hand twice with the batten during lunch on Friday,” he said pointing at his wrist.
Singh said, “Until Friday, the police were seeking proof of Suraj’s death. On Saturday, we found the proof – his dead body.”
The group of men here claimed that the body was found at around four in the evening. Then the stone-pelting began, which lasted for 20-30 minutes; this was followed by arson.
Later two young men, in their early twenties, requested this correspondent to come to a desolate location nearby. There they shared two videos – one in which the body recovered from the Yamuna can be seen, and the other in which a group of men can be seen doling out mayhem at the night shelters.
In the first video, a group of men lifts the body with help of a net or transparent plastic-like sheet. “Araam se le chalo, ye bhai hai apna (Carry him properly. He is one of us, he is our brother),” a man shouts, asking others to hold the body properly. As the group moves towards the night shelters, the crowd starts swelling and the anger is palpable. They hurl abuse at the police and share how the body has recovered from “The Yamuna at Pushta”. A man, speaking on a small mic, can be seen leading the group.
According to sources, two homeless residents of Puhsta named Salman and Satya were behind instigating the violence.
The homeless residents had said that they carried the body to the night shelter. “The moment the body reached there it triggered an angry response. And people started resorting to violence,” a homeless resident said, on conditions of anonymity.
In the second video, the group of homeless men can be seen vandalising properties, with some of them wielding sticks.
While the NGO’s Tripathi and his associate claimed that “no dead body was brought here”, one of his employees pointed out the area where the body was kept. However, he chose to hide after his supervisors denied these claims.
Incidentally, according to news agency PTI, the Delhi Police had accepted the recovery of the body from the river on Saturday.
The fire department had received information about the blaze at 6.05 pm and five fire tenders were rushed to the spot.
Importantly, while three of the eight night shelters were gutted, no one was hurt during the violence. One night shelter caretaker sustained minor injuries while evacuating 102 residents living inside the three shelters.
While Asiaville cannot independently verify the claims whether the body recovered from the Yamuna was that of the man who jumped into the river, it is pretty clear that these homeless men went on a rampage after the recovery. Neither can we ascertain whether the one who jumped into the Yamuna was Suraj, as is claimed by the homeless men here.
Notably, according to sources, the doctors have prima facie said that the dead body, recovered from the river, was in a decomposed state and should be at least two to three days old, if not older.
Officials such as Tripathi have been claiming that no dead body was brought to the shelters and that the rumours triggered the violence.
DUSIB spokesperson, Bipin Rai told Asiaville, “Neither someone had jumped into the Yamuna nor any dead body was recovered from this site. A dead body was found from the Yamuna near Burari (kilometres away from Kashmere Gate) and rumours spread that the body has been found at Pushta site.”
He further added that many of these homeless residents, and those who live on the banks of the Yamuna, are drug addicts, and that stress levels have increased after the imposition of the lockdown. “They don’t have any earning sources now and the cost of drugs or liquor has shot up due to the lockdown. Hence, the addicts cannot afford it,” Rai said, while indicating that they might have resorted to such violence due to their anxiety. He agreed that the numbers at the Pushta site have increased due to the lockdown.
Incidentally, Rai’s claims contradict the statement of Delhi Police’s PRO Anil Mittal. According to Mittal, “Four to five people jumped into the Yamuna river (on Friday). They came out of the river after a while but one of them didn't return.” He further added that the body recovered by the residents was sent for a postmortem.
However, Rai rightly points out that, “Even if the body was recovered from the said site and we are to believe that it was one of the homeless people who had jumped in, it is impossible for the body to travel in the opposite direction of the water flow.”
Ideally, due to the Yamuna’s flow, the body should have moved towards Nizamuddin, and not in the opposite direction.
According to sources, two homeless residents Salman and Satya had led the crowd that carried out the mayhem. The man speaking on the mic, in the video, is yet to be identified. In connection with the arson, the police have arrested seven men.
Activist Sunil Aledia, who works with the Centre For Holistic Development (CHD), said, “While from the outset it looks like pre-planned violence, it is highly unlikely that any resident of the night shelter would set the shelters on fire. The stretch at the Pushta is anyway one of the most critical points.” However, he too subscribes to Rai’s argument about the dead body and the water flow of the Yamuna.
The lockdown has increased the stress levels of people across the country and the world. Reports about increased domestic violence in India and elsewhere in the world have already started doing the rounds. While COVID-19 is creating havoc across the globe, people’s anxiety levels are also high due to the fear of job loss. In the midst of all this, when India declared the 21-day lockdown, Delhi witnessed a mass exodus of migrant workers.
As a damage control measure, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government announced the opening up of food distribution centres for those in need. As a result, crowds started flocking to areas such as Kashmere Gate-Pushta and several schools across the national capital.
No fewer than 5,000 men live around the Pushta night shelters, and they are served their meals by the government. But to manage such a large crowd, there is next to no police deployment.
Aledia, who works for the cause of homeless residents of Delhi, told Asiaville, “The FIR should be first filed against the government officials for such poor crowd management. From day one, we have been requesting them to shift the crowd around Pushta (night shelters) to abandoned government buildings and schools. You cannot manage a crowd of 5000 to 10,000, living in open, at one site.”
While the government is taking measures for the containment of the spread of COVID-19, and talking about policies such as “Operation SHIELD”, thousands of homeless on the banks of the Yamuna live in a vulnerable state. In lieu of protective gear, all they have is a mask.
“What if even a single COVID carrier enters this cluster at Pushta? So far we are even struggling to ensure social distancing at these sites, let alone checking them for COVID symptoms. Even before we realise, the situation could go out of control,” the CHD activist said.
Meanwhile, for those like Pintu Verma and Chhabi Lal, the immediate concern is the availability of food during this lockdown. Until Sunday night they were neither served meals, nor were they relocated to a new location. They are afraid of a police crackdown. Verma, while walking us back to the main lane of the night shelters, shared, “I have a house in Delhi. But I can’t go back to my family as I am a drug addict. I do smack. This place has been my home for years now. I used to earn money by painting graffiti on walls but due to the lockdown, I am jobless. And now we have lost one of our men.”