Outside India's biggest hospital, patients and homeless huddle together during cold snap

Delhi has an estimated 150,000 homeless, scores of whom die every year because the cold and allied conditions

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On a freezing marble pavement outside India’s biggest hospital in the capital New Delhi, Reena Devi optimistically keeps an eye on a nearby government-run shelter home as his ailing son shivers in the bitter cold.

Ms Devi, 30, this week travelled hundreds of kilometres from eastern Bihar state for treatment for her 12-year-old son Roshan Raj ― who suffers from severe arthritis ― at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

But as darkness fell, she once more failed to find a space in the handful of makeshift shelters that authorities run to accommodate desperate outpatients and their families in the winter months when temperatures fall to almost 0ºC in the city.

“The cold is biting our bones. It is unbearable. My child is already ill and I am worried about his health. The blanket is not enough but I cannot afford more warm clothes,” Ms Devi told The National.

“I could only afford to buy train tickets but have no money to rent a place. We don’t know how long we will have to sleep outside in this harsh weather,” she said.

Ms Devi is one of the thousands of caretakers who bring family members with life-threatening diseases to AIIMS for advanced treatment at nominal costs.

The premier government institute receives close to 10,000 new cases every day and accommodates more than 2,000 inpatients, but a long waiting list and lack of accommodation for hundreds of outpatients means spending nights in the open outside the hospital.

Renting a place or a hotel is an additional financial burden for outpatient families who are mostly engaged in daily wage labour, like Ms Devi’s husband, or do menial jobs and can barely afford food and medicines.

Dozens of people, including patients seeking treatment at the hospital, are forced to sleep on the pavements, bus stands, and pedestrian subways in unhygienic conditions while battling the bitter cold.

Reena Devi, 30, and her son Roshan Raj, 12, who has arthritis, outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.  Photo: Taniya Dutta / The National

Delhi has been in the grip of a cold wave since the beginning of January and the mercury dipped to the season’s lowest on Thursday, 3.3ºC.

A thick blanket of morning fog has engulfed the city for weeks, disrupting flights and rail transport.

Schools have been shut and doctors are advising people to stay inside and keep warm.

The weather department is predicting that temperatures could drop further this month.

Thousands of homeless trapped outdoors as temperatures plummet

A woman eats while she settles down for the night outside the hospital. Taniya Dutta / The National

But for thousands of desperate patients, their caretakers, like Ms Devi, as well as the city's huge population of homeless, there is no reprieve.

Delhi has an estimated 150,000 homeless and every year, scores of them die because of the cold and related conditions.

The New Delhi government, ruled by the Aam Aadmi Party, in November set up 195 night shelters in the city, but they are almost always packed.

The shelters have capacity for about 17,000 people, and beds are allotted on a first-come-first-served basis, leaving tens of thousands to suffer in the bone-chilling cold.

“I was expecting to get a bed but the caretaker said all of them are occupied. There should be more shelters or beds added so more people can stay in shelters,” Ms Devi told The National.

"Those who have beds won’t leave them easily because it is very cold outside", she said.

For the past week, Anil Kumar, 45, has slept in an underpass outside the government-run Safdarjung Hospital, just across from the AIIMS ― a common spot for outpatients who spend hours looking for a space in reeking subways, bus stands and on pavements ― at times fighting and jostling with others for space.

Dozens of people in New Delhi sleep on pavements, in bus stands and pedestrian subways. Photo: Taniya Dutta / The National

The cold is excruciating, but Mr Kumar says he has spent all his savings on treatment for his wife, who has tuberculosis.

Every night, he asks medical shops for cardboard boxes. He then opens them carefully and lays them out on the stone floor — his makeshift bed.

“I sleep on it. What else can I do? My wife has TB. I cannot leave her alone here and go to a hotel. I don’t have money. I have two small kids to look after,” said Mr Kumar, who came from Bulandshahar in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

The crisis repeats year after year in the city where the government claims and promises that sufficient space for the patients and their caretakers is available.

But scenes from busy stretches near the hospitals provide a more accurate picture.

Rows of plastic sheets tied to the hospital boundary walls are used as camps by desperate women and children to protect themselves from the chilly winds.

Many make bonfires out of plastic and paper rubbish to keep themselves warm.

The lucky few sleep in makeshift shelters. Photo: Taniya Dutta / The National

Nitin Singh, 20, a caretaker at one of two shelter homes outside Safdarjung Hospital said that he feels helpless when people come to him.

A bed is allotted for a maximum of two weeks. For patients, they need to show the hospital slips, duration of the treatment, or urgency.

“There are 40 beds in this shelter. One bed can be used by two persons, say a mother and her child. We also welcome homeless people and provide them with blankets, food and water. But I don’t feel the number of beds are enough for the needy,” Mr Singh told The National.

“Throughout the day people come to me, they stand outside and beg me for a bed. I feel helpless. I can’t fit them all inside because there is limited space,” he said.

Updated: January 06, 2023, 6:25 AM