City’s squatters, homeless stare at spectre of starvation

Kathmandu, March 29

Bhim Bahadur Rai, 44, and his wife Sumitra Giri, 44, have not eaten anything for the past two days, thanks to the coronavirus lockdown, which has brought economic activities to a standstill.

The couple used to rummage through the garbage and pick up recyclable items, such as plastic and metal, before selling them to earn a living. But the lockdown, which began on Tuesday, has threatened their livelihood, as no one is allowed to move outside.

This morning, the couple, however, defied the government’s order to stay indoors and wandered around the streets of Kaushaltar. “We came out to find food,” said Giri, as tears welled up her eyes. The mother of a six-year-old daughter was not even in a condition to stand properly, as she told THT she and her family did not even have access to clean drinking water.

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Giri and Rai are homeless people who live in a squatter settlement on the banks of Hanumante River at Kaushaltar in Bhaktapur. The couple have called a hume pipe lying strewn nearby the river their home for quite some time. Around 60 households live in the settlement and most of the families are facing the same problem like Giri and Rai.

“My husband has resisted the lockdown order and gone out to find work,” said Anjali Chaudhary, 29. Chaudhary’s husband used to work as an ear cleaner. “But at this moment he is willing to do any work that comes along his way, as we will have to sleep on an empty stomach from today if he does not bring home some money,” said Chaudhary, as she tried to soothe her crying infant daughter in her lap.

Bir Bahadur Rai, 46, another person who lives in the settlement, is facing the same problem. He was given stale noodles last evening by a small eatery nearby. But whether he can find food today is a thought that has been haunting him.

“We generally survive on leftovers. But since the lockdown, restaurants have remained closed and we are struggling to find food. I don’t know how I’m going to survive,” said Bir Bahadur, who is in the same profession as Bhim Bahadur and Giri.

As THT was talking to these people, the public that had gathered in the area offered them food. But there is no guarantee that more volunteers will come to their aid in the coming days as lockdown has crippled movement of people.

The lockdown has received widespread public support as many say this is the only way a country like Nepal with a fragile healthcare system can contain the spread of COVID-19. But it is taking a toll on the urban poor.

Most of the urban poor in Kathmandu valley either live on the roadsides or in squatter settlements. It is not known how many people live in squatter settlements in the valley. But many of those living on roadsides have lately been moved to proper houses.

Kathmandu Metropolitan City with the support of philanthropic organisation, Manab Sewa Aashram, had recently initiated a campaign to rehabilitate homeless people living on the roadsides of the metropolis, transferring around 1,000 homeless people from roadsides to elderly homes, foster homes and homes of their own families.

Today, there are around 600 people living on the roadsides of the valley, according to Manab Sewa Aashram. “These people may suffer the most during lockdown as they may not find food to eat,” said the Aashram’s Chairperson Ramji Adhikari. “Timely action is a must. Otherwise, these people may die of hunger.” Lately, various local governments across the valley have started collecting data on such needy people. “We have called on individuals to inform us about such needy people. We are also formally gathering information about them,” said Madhyapur Thimi Municipality Spokesperson Ram Thapa.