A night with Delhi's homeless

The BBC's Divya Arya joined the initiative on the streets

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BBC Hindi's Divya Arya meets a young woman who lives on the streets of the capital, Delhi, one of the millions of homeless people in India's teeming cities.

Twenty years ago, Pooja fled to Delhi with her mother and six siblings to escape poverty and an abusive father at home in the northern Indian city of Agra in Uttar Pradesh state. She was two years old then.

Since then, the pavements of the city have been her home.

During the day she roams around looking for a job, bathes in a public toilet and gets her drinking water from a neighbourhood petrol station.

Her mother and a polio-stricken brother beg for a living. Another brother, who was working as a driver, is in prison for petty crime.

The ailing brother begs from the pavement, so his idle wheelchair is covered with a plastic sheet and contains the family's meagre possessions: some clothes, biscuits, a bottle of water.

Holding out hope

Life on Delhi's streets is fraught with danger.

The little money Pooja's family earns by begging is stashed away with a local shopowner who they trust. A few nights back, Pooja says, a man nicked her throat with a razor blade and snatched her mobile phone.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working with the homeless say the official figure of two million is misleading, and reckon it is more than 15 times that.

I met Pooja as a part of a group of Delhi citizens who had been invited by NGOs to spend a night out with the city's homeless and listen to their stories. Some 25 students turned up on a balmy October night.

Pooja wears a pale yellow salwar kurta (tunic and pyjamas) with matching bangles, her hair tied neatly in braid.

Pooja with a street urchin Pooja says she wants to study more

She is brisk and animated in conversation. Despite all that she has lost, she still holds out hope for the future.

Three of her siblings died of diseases they picked up living in the open. The four - including Pooja - who survived were picked up by an NGO and put into a school and shelter.

But then an elderly man saw her on the streets and asked her to marry him. He had a home, so her mother agreed. Pooja was 14 then.

'I delivered babies'

She lived with the man for a few years and bore him two children. Then her husband died.

Her in-laws, she says, promptly sent her back to the streets to where, they said, "she belonged".

Pooja put her children into a shelter - "I didn't want them to grow up on the streets" - and went looking for work.

Better days followed, she says, when she began working as an untrained midwife in a small private hospital earning some 3,000 rupees ($48) a month.

"I became a doctor," she says proudly. "I delivered babies, carried out abortions."

But she fell sick after a year, lost her job - and returned to the streets again.

Since then she's been back hunting for a job, roaming the streets, knocking on shelters.

"I want to study more. It's the best thing I have ever done," says Pooja.

It is going to be daybreak soon. I prepare to leave. I say I am sorry that I didn't let her rest.

"It's cathartic to talk," she says. "And in any case, young homeless women don't sleep at night."

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