We pass by them every day, often avoiding their pleas for food and money. We quickly look away lest we be brushed by their misery, and keep our illusion of a ‘perfect world’ intact. And thus would live the beggars and the destitute, unwanted and unheeded, if not for some.
Charity is not dead.
There are still a few who offer more than a glance to the homeless and needy – they reach out to them with warmth and kindness at Nigam Bodh Ghat in the Capital, turning this dreary final resting place into one of life and hope, just as they do at other places.
Every day shabbily dressed men, hurt and hungry, line up near the cremation ground and wait patiently for Vinod Goel and Dr Ghulam Sajjad Ali who not only feed them but also nurse them.
With masked faces and gloved hands, Goel and Ali clean and bandage the wounds of the destitute. While Ali carries a box of allopathic medicines and syringes, Goel treats the patients with his Ayurvedic potion – turmeric, marigold and gaumutra (cow urine).
“We are here to rid them of their pain. Look at them, they don’t have money, they are hurt. If I can help, why shouldn’t I come forward?” Goel said while nursing them, sitting on the street corner that serves as their clinic.
At sharp 8:30 am every day, the two Samaritans turn the pavement outside the crematorium into an open-air clinic. For one-and-a-half hours, they provide first-aid and free medicine to the homeless. Then, Goel, a transporter, goes to office and Ali for his medical practice in a hospital.
Another kind soul, Kamaljeet Singh Panesar has been “serving one good meal” a day and nurturing the poor on the streets of the capital since 1989.
Every day, Panesar, a businessman, and a few volunteers, serve two rotis, a bowl of dal and a cup of tea to the several thousand starving homeless souls.
Thousands of them carefully gulp down the first and probably only healthy meal of the day without making any noise, without fighting or asking for more. Then, they quench their thirst with a glass of fresh water from a tanker parked on the road.
Within an hour the place wears a deserted look, again. The poor have gone, leaving in their wake not a morsel of food, nor a single used cup.
"It all started around 1989. My father, Trilochan Singh Panesar was very religious. But he strongly felt that it was wrong to only remain engaged in ceremonial rituals. Serving the downtrodden, helping fellow humans who needed us was more important," said Panesar while sharing his amazing story.
"My father used to say, ‘No one can fall sick if he gets one good meal a day,’ so our basic idea is to give one free, healthy meal to everyone. No one should remain hungry," he added.
When asked what his organisation was called, and where it had its office, Panesar interrupted to say, "No, no. There is no organisation. We are only a group of people. My father started it and we are continuing the work. The food is prepared at Tilak Nagar and then we ferry it to different parts of the city."
Panesar and his volunteers grow the foodgrain they feed to the destitute.
"We have rented 70 acres of land in the Delhi-NCR region. There we grow wheat, rice, mustard and bajra. In our farms, we also have a herd of cattle. The ingredients that we use to prepare the meals are mostly from our fields," the bearded man who’s fondly called ‘Virji’ as his father was, added.
The noble act that Trilochan Singh started in front of Sis Ganj Sahib Gurdwara in Chandi Chowk is now spread across seven points in Delhi.
Every morning, hundreds of volunteers feed thousands of starving people who live on the streets of the city – 700-800 in Chandni Chowk, over 1,000 at Nigambodh Ghat,around 200 at the roundabout near Rajdoot hotel, 250-300 near the Sai Baba temple at Lodhi Road, 700 in Tilak Nagar, hundreds in the compartments of Sachkhand Express, which takes devotees to the holy Hazur Sahib, and a few hundred at Veerji Da Ashram (old age home) in Dashrathpuri, near Dabri more.
It may sound strange, but these Samaritans do not maintain accounts. Despite that the work flows seamlessly, thanks to seven groups of volunteers who prepare food on seven different days of the week and many others who nurse and feed those who call the streets their home.
And none of these volunteers is jobless.
"We are all professionals; no one is nikkama (useless) here.So,after completing our work here, we go back to our respective workplaces," Goel informed.
These volunteers really don’t seem to know how the finances are managed, and they do not take money from anyone. But when passersby offer them pulses, flour and other food material, they accept it.
However, their services are not limited to the living. "We cremate dead bodies. In 2005, all the bodies that were unclaimed in the Sarojini Nagar blasts were cremated by us," Panesar said.
Besides that, they look after the severely sick on the streets. They have doctors on hand – two at Chandni Chowk, one at Nigambodh Ghat,and eight at the old age home in Tilak Nagar.
Basic medical equipment like X-Ray machines are kept at the old-age home.
In case resident doctors fail to diagnose or treat patients, they are taken to public hospitals for better care. Sometimes, the destitute, after being discharged from various hospitals are provided shelter in the oldage home.
Ravinder Singh, a pharmacist who is involved in the social work, doesn’t’ even remember when he started participating in it. But he remembers how it started.
"I used to see Veerji (Trilochan Singh) cleaning wounds of the homeless daily. One day, he asked me if I was a pharmacist and if I would like to assist him. Thus, it started."
"I don’t recall the year probably 15 years ago, and since that day, I have been doing this. Veerji left us in 2010, but we continued it," Singh, who was accompanied by his wife, told thestatesman.com . The couple volunteers to serve the disadvantaged in every possible manner."
But, not all the volunteers get family support.
Goel, for instance, gets into fights with his mother, wife and daughter daily. They fear that he might catch some infection or fall sick as he nurses the homeless, who are perhaps not conscious about hygiene.
"My family is scared.I tell them even if I die, I’ll at least breathe my last doing some good work," Goel said.
"But I am sure I’ll never fall sick.We wear masks and gloves. We take necessary precautions. It’s difficult for me to stop coming."
"I feel happy doing this service,engaging with other fellow volunteers who are also here only to serve," Goel said.
Amidst the din of fastpaced development, in the shadows of skyscrapers and malls,thousands of migrant labourers make the streets of the capital their home. They earn a few rupees, and head back home. While they struggle to make ends meet, people like Panesar, Goel, Ravinder, and Ali, try to make their stay a bit less cumbersome.
These volunteers work without support from government agencies.
"We finish our work by 10.30 am. The public offices start after that, hence we have never really interacted with government bodies. But, in a way, we are assisting the government."
"(Former Delhi Chief Minister) Sheila Dikshit spoke about a meal for Rs.15 and (the current CM) Arvind Kejriwal also proposed to offer meals at Rs.5. But we are doing it for free," Panesar said.