Children of a lesser goddess

Pujas bring sleepless nights for pavement dwellers

By bappaditya paul

Sixty-three years of democracy could not ensure them a roof and now, the Durga Puja has snatched from them the pavement as well!

This is the story of Kolkata’s 70,000-odd destitutes. As the city wakes up to nightlong merrymaking and pandal hopping, the pavement dwellers lose their sleep and treasured pavement spots, thanks to the beautification drive for the Pujas, which requires them to be evicted to facilitate the pandal hoppers a smooth walk.

These homeless people, who roam the city during the day or take up odd-jobs, sleep on the footpaths, sidewalks of bridges or on the veranda of big buildings across the city.

“There are two ways in which these people are evicted. In areas such as BK Pal Avenue, Joramandir etc, the Puja organisers amicably remove the pavement-dwellers by offering them clothes, food and other amenities. But in places such as Tala Park, Baghbazar, Gariahat, Rashbehari, they are evicted forcefully in association with the police and the local councilors,” said Mr Surajit Neogi of the ActionAid India, which is working for the homeless of Kolkata since 2003.

Hamidur Seikh, a middle-aged handicap who survives on alms and spends nights on the sidewalk of Bijan Setu at Gariahat, verified the charge.

Hamidur, originally hails from Samudragarh in Burdwan and came to Kolkata last year.

“Barricades have been put up on both sides of the bridge and policemen have asked us to stay off the pavements till Kali Puja,” he said. Hamidur has now moved to the minority-dominated Chandni Chowk “as there are less number of Pujas here”.

As per an ActionAid study, as of June 2010, there are about 1, 10,000 homeless in Kolkata, of which a majority 70,000 live on the pavements.

Even according to the 2001 Census, the number of Kolkata’s homeless is 67,676 ~ a shocking number given that there are only three state-run vagrants’ home within the city limits, which boast a total capacity of sheltering 600 destitutes.

“A section of the pavement-dwellers also move to the periphery of the city during the festivals, where there are fewer Pujas and they are allowed to sleep on the pavements,” Mr Neogi added.

But those who stick to the areas they are used to, do so knowing the trouble they would have to face.

“I will not move from this area, for, if I leave I may not get the same place to sleep when I return. Thus, what some of us do every year is that on the Puja days we roam about till dawn and then come back to our pavements when the revelers go back home. We sleep till 9 or 10 a.m. and leave again,” said Mr Nitai Mondal, who works at a roadside food stall and sleeps on the veranda of a commercial building at Ballygung.

(The author is a senior journalist with The Statesman, India. This piece originally appeared in The Statesman on 15 October 2010)

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