Between doctor visits, they spend their nights on streets

Nowhere to go, patients' kin are often forced to live on pavements outside AIIMS

Sarita Devi, 32, believes she is fighting a lost battle.She has left behind her six children, the youngest being a seven-month-old daughter, in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh to attend to her ailing husband.

The little ancestral land the couple had is now gone. Her 40-year-old husband is being treated for blood cancer at the AIIMS. Sarita has been forced to live on the pavements outside the hospital for over a month now.

Her repeated attempts to seek accommodation in an AIIMS dharamshala dormitory have been futile. 

“He was shifted to the emergency ward yesterday after he contracted jaundice. I don’t know for how long I have to live on the pavement. In the last few days, the cold has been quite unbearable.”

Munching on a cold parantha, she adds one cannot solely rely on food distributed by the NGOs.“There is a mad rush to grab food when the vehicles arrive.”

She also finds paying Rs 5 for the toilet unreasonable. “Besides the cold, you also have to put up with rats nibbling at your feet on the pavement,” she adds.

Sarita’s tale is common on the street outside AIIMS. Poor patients from outside the state, once discharged, are homeless here. So are their family members.

Sixteen-year-old Deepak was diagnosed with cancer a few months back. He has become quiet with “all the rays” he is being given, his mother says uncovering his knee. “This is what the child is going through.”

Her face, however, does not give away any emotion as she gets busy sewing a tattered bag which has Deepak’s clothes.

His father remembers bringing him from Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, “the day before Diwali”.
Initially, Deepak was examined every six days. “Now, the next date is January 8.

We have no relatives here and the dharamshalas have no vacancies. It does not make sense to spend on train fare. So we will continue to stay on the pavements till then,” says Pirti Singh, the teenager’s father.

With long gaps between dates for chemotherapy sessions or follow-up sessions and inadequate space in the dharamshalas to accommodate these patients, the outsiders have few options to avail.

Ramesh Yadav, who is suffering from throat cancer, clarifies he has a kothi back in Purnia district in Bihar. Here, he is a “homeless”.

“In the past two months, I have made a few friends from my zila. They are also pavement dwellers here. I am trying to not think about the change of fate,” says the 45-year-old man.  

Patients or their family members have demarcated their space on the pavements.
“I was operated on December 12 and discharged soon after for lack of space in the hospital. I have reserved this place since. My husband and son do not leave me alone so that nobody can encroach on this space,” says Veena, who hails from Karnal, Haryana.
The little space available on the concrete outside the AIIMS Metro station doubles as a shelter for a few at night.

Threat to hygiene
Patients’ attendants complain that things were better when they were allowed to hang around and sleep on the pavements inside the campus. However, the AIIMS administration has found squatting as a threat to hygiene in the campus. For over 20 days now, they are allowed in only in the morning.

“We cannot allow squatting inside the campus as it brings down the hygiene level. Leftover food items also attract dogs in the campus,” says Dr Amit Gupta, Spokesperson, AIIMS.

Currently, the total capacity of AIIMS and the trauma centre for patients’ attendants is 800, Dr Gupta adds.

This includes the two waiting halls inside the campus, four dharamshalas and the two temporary night shelters set up in collaboration with the Central Reserve Police Force.

It is also difficult for patients’ family members to cover the distance to the mobile shelter outside the Dental Council from the entrance. Also, not many are aware of this new addition. Plus, only one patient attendant is allowed in the mobile night shelter.

Several patients cannot even afford rooms at dharamshalas. An AIIMS official said the amount is usually waived off for poor patients.

However, the arrangements are inadequate with the family members of those admitted at the hospital camping outside the hospital in the harsh weather conditions. Dr Gupta admits that the arrangements fall short, given the traffic of patients from outside states.

However, most security guards at AIIMS have their own version of events. In fact, they have little sympathy for the patients or their attendants braving the cold.

 “We have tried shifting them from the streets to the night shelters in buses. But they want to remain on the footpaths for the sake of blankets and food distributed by NGOs. Several times, the night shelters go vacant,” says a security guard at the AIIMS.

Another security guard added that he has seen most families selling off these blankets during his four-year-long tenure here.

Patients’ family members say the allegations are not true. “The security guards mistreat us. They taunt us saying we are staying on the pavements for blankets. A hotel room would cost at least Rs 500. There are three other family members with me. What do we do?” says Anjali, in her early thirties.

Anjali’s daughter has undergone an eye operation and is admitted at AIIMS. The family hails from Bettiah district in Bihar.

“It is baseless that we would come all the way from Bihar for two blankets. Will anybody like to live on the streets like this unless forced to?”

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