New Delhi: Salim Khan, 48, a lean yet sturdy cart-puller covered in dirt, looks visibly tired amid the buzz in Old Delhi on hazy Monday afternoon.
Khan, originally from Gujarat, sweats profusely before unloading goods at Chandni Chowk’s Chawri Bazar, the hardware souk, as he hurries into the alley to lay down on his back on the pavement.
A majority of passersby are wearing masks. Another street worker, Amit Kumar, hobbles across on crutches to cross the road. This is how homeless people from India’s hinterland struggle to live in the shadow of wealth in the capital.
Like many other workers, Khan, after pulling his wooden cart for a little over five hours through narrow lanes, has food with greasy hands before walking towards one of the stalls in Chawri Bazar.
Day in and day out, Khan watches the market coming to life at the crack of dawn, as he readies himself for the day’s labour – transporting goods from one place to another.
Then, he manoeuvres his handcart on the quiet stretch of the road to offer prayers before going to sleep.
When asked why he doesn’t buy a face mask to protect himself from coronavirus, Khan chuckles before taking out a beedi (mini-cigar) from his worn-out pocket.
“I have been pulling a cart for little over 12 years and lived through severe pollution … Now, what this virus could take away from me?” Khan told Gulf News.
With each passing year, hundreds of workers travel to India’s capital, searching for work. However, some get lost in the bustling streets of the vibrant city, including children aged below 15. Many in developed countries, especially in the West, are actively monitoring ongoing health menace amid Covid-19 and even closing their borders to control the spread of the virus, which has so far claimed over 7,100 lives worldwide.
On the other hand, Delhi’s homeless are sleeping peacefully on footpaths, blissfully unaware of what is going on around them.
Unfortunately, each year more than 2,000 unidentifiable bodies are recovered from the streets as a result of worsening health conditions and from heat and cold waves.
Delhi is home to thousands of migrant workers, whose personal hygiene is not up to the mark. Most of these workers have no idea about the gravity of the situation facing the world. They are some of the most vulnerable to the diseases.
“Our lives are as same as before, I don’t see any change. We’ve been washing our hands ...All we know is to work hard and feed families at the dusk,” Mukesh, 31, a rickshaw puller, told Gulf News.
From Jamia Masjid to Khari Baoli, a wholesale market for spices, thousands of migrant workers either end up sleeping on carts, rickshaws or pavements or in the lanes and bylanes.
As per the estimate of Homeless World Cup Foundation and Housing and Land Rights Network, India has 1.8 million homeless people, with more than 100,000 in Delhi alone more than one lakh vagrants sleeping on footpaths.
Delhi’s government has taken an initiative in the recent past to provide shelters to homeless people but they do not seem enough.
Most of the homeless in Delhi are rickshaw pullers, scrap collectors and rag-pickers. They often homeless contract fleas while living on unsanitary walkways, there by endangering their lives, especially amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Kumar, 36, while taking a break from work and resting on his cart, says the pavement dwellers are happy with what they have. They don’t have any regrets and animosity for each other.
At least 129 cases have been confirmed in India, with two deaths reported, putting the country on high alert. If the situation gets out of control, it would be those living out on the streets, the most vulnerable of India’s population, who would suffer the most.
“We could turn up on any of the pavements in Delhi like free birds. We’re helpless before our fate and this is how life goes on,” Kumar said.
-Tahir Ibn Manzoor is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.