Late night, little security, they counted Delhi’s homeless

By Rahul Vaishnavi, IANS
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NEW DELHI - Walking into dirty lanes at night, waking up sleeping and sometimes hostile people, thousands of enumerators and volunteers, including women, fanned out across the sprawling national capital to ensure the homeless were counted for India’s Census 2011, deemed the world’s biggest headcount.

The government-appointed census workers fanned out to Delhi’s nooks and crannies to count rickshawpullers, ragpickers, labourers and other homeless people for two days that stretched into the dawn of Tuesday. Some women enumerators were accompanied by family members for safety reasons.

As witnessed by this IANS correspondent who accompanied them, enumerators and volunteers undertook a painstaking task, persuading homeless - and often nervous - individuals answer questions about religion and birthplace.

“Almost all of them didn’t know what a census was. So we first had to brief them and make them comfortable and only then did they provide information,” said Suraj Singh, an enumerator and a teacher in a government school.

Some were happy at being registered, but not without some apprehensions.

Raju, a 26-year-old rickshaw puller who came to Delhi from Bihar five years ago, was delighted that he had been included in the census but was not sure if it would help him attain a better lifestyle.

“I understand that recognising us is very important for our betterment but honestly, I have no expectations from the government. I am more concerned about not going to sleep on an empty stomach,” said Raju.

According to Rafique, a rickshawpuller from Uttar Pradesh, “I don’t understand what is the meaning of all this. A poor man like me only wants food, clothes and shelter but those in power have just not understood this simple fact even after more than 60 years of independence.”

Volunteers from Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), an NGO, accompanied the enumerators.

“A job which requires roaming in the many filthy bylanes and streets of the city at midnight trying to count the next homeless person will definitely not excite many of us. We know the attitude of our society towards these poor people and we are here to keep a check that everyone is counted,” Sanjay Kumar, director operations AAA, told IANS.

He said around 30,000 people had been roped in to count the homeless.

The volunteers along with enumerators visited all corners of the city Sunday night and continued the tedious process the following day, well past midnight.

The counting started at around 8 p.m. Homeless people are deliberately enumerated late at night because that is the time they can be found dozing off on city pavements after a hard day’s work.

“We carried out our duties in the last census in 2001 too,” added Kumar whose NGO runs around 50 temporary and permanent shelters for the homeless in the city. The numbers rise in winters and dip in the summer.

According to Kumar, about 35,000 homeless people were registered Sunday night in the walled city areas of Sitaram Bazar, Chawri Bazar, Mori Gate among others and another 15,000 were expected to be counted Monday in areas around Gurudwara Sisganj, Lajpat Rai market etc.

In the Sisgangj area, for instance, there were around 10-15 enumerators, six of them women. The exercise left some women enumerators unhappy, as they complained of harassment.

“Sunday night, I approached a man sleeping on a pavement and just as I asked him his name, he kicked me hard and I fell down. I hurt my leg and it was very painful. I am afraid and have brought along my father-in-law with me Monday night,” said Jigyasa Gupta, an enumerator and a school teacher.

Purnima Das, who was accompanied by her husband, alleged that most of the homeless people were drunk at night and misbehaved.

“There is no security for us and even if there are policemen patrolling the area or parked in their vans, they never bother to ask if we need any assistance,” said Das.

Census 2011 was conducted in two phases — the first phase, called the House Listing and Housing Census was conducted between April and July last year over a period of 45 days in each state/union territory.

The second phase called the Population Enumeration phase began simultaneously all over the country from Feb 9 and concluded Monday.

The revisional round of the enumeration will be held from Tuesday to March 5. In snow-bound areas, the enumeration and revisional rounds were carried out from Sep 11 to Oct 6, 2010.

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