New Delhi: The cold is icy, the traffic noise overpowering and the environment inhospitable. As they sit huddled over a makeshift stove making a meal outside the gates of All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the group of women are amongst those who fight an hourly battle everyday to keep their patients warm and fit enough for another day’s treatment at India’s premier hospital.
The stench of urine from the partially closed toilet next to which they are cooking is strong, but the spirit to survive is indomitable too.
Yashoda Devi, a woman in her 40s from Bhagalpur in Bihar, is amongst the scores of people from all over the country who camp outside the overcrowded AIIMS, in the expansive heart of the national capital, waiting for treatment for themselves, or for their loved ones.
She is here for the treatment of her 12-year-old son, who is suffering from cancer and also spends his days out in the cold.
“We have no option, I have to get my son treated... even if it means I have to live in the open,” Yashoda Devi said, peeling potatoes and warming herself from the amber glow of the burning bits of wood.
Some have managed to find a place in a nearby shelter run by the hospital, while others are not so lucky and are forced to spend their nights under the open sky, coping with Delhi’s harsh winter - Wednesday was the coldest day here in 44 years with the day temperature at a maximum of just 9.8 degrees Celsius.
All have the same story. They stay on the roads, biding their time till the next appointment, many too poor to go home and come back.
There is a shortage of beds in the hospital, considered amongst the best research and medical institutions in the country, and there is no option but to wait.
Summer is still ok, but the cold is unbearable, they say.
Amongst those living their days on the pavement are Ramlal and his six-year-old son, who often spend the night inside the toilet outside the hospital.
“I am here to get my child treated. Since we did not get a bed in the hospital or in the shelter, we had to spend the night in this toilet,” said Ramlal who has come from Uttar Pradesh.
The entrance to the toilet has been shut with tapes, but it is not totally sealed. People can go in and stay there.
Like him, Bachkan Sada, 65, is here for the treatment of his 35-year-old son Prakash, who is suffering from mouth cancer. The road has been their home for the past three months.
The only solace is that they were lucky to get some blankets donated by an NGO.
“It is very cold, they gave us these blankets, we have no option but to stay here,” said Bachkan, who belongs to Khagadiya in Bihar.
It’s a community of those in need and desperate for help.
Next to them sits Sushma Devi, suffering with an ulcer in her foot which needs to be operated.
“They had given us time for surgery yesterday [Wednesday], but cancelled it. It is very difficult to stay here in the open like a homeless [person], but what can we do?” Sushma Devi told IANS.
A few feet away, Babbo, a woman in her 60s, complains that they have no food either.
“We would be grateful if you can get us some food, it is a big problem,” she said.
It’s a sorry story, repeated each day of Delhi’s searing summer and harsh winters.
AIIMS has a shelter with a capacity of 650 beds. However, with the large number of patients coming from far corners of the country, the shelter proves to be insufficient, forcing many to spend nights outside.
As per official figures, AIIMS gets over 7,000 patients every day, but has less than a 2,000 bed capacity. According to its website, it has 1,323 doctors and 1,810 nurses.
Social welfare officer Preeti Ahluwalia refused to comment when contacted.