Where the Air Conditioner Is a Passing Porsche

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Manan Vatsyayana / AFP / Getty

A homeless Indian man sleeps on the pavement of a busy road in New Delhi .

Mohamed Harun may not live in the booming new India, but he feels its breeze on his back every night as he stretches out to sleep. Harun's home is a patch of pavement near New Delhi's Neela Gumbad, or Blue Dome, along a busy road that connects the central city and its wealthy southern suburbs. The 37-year-old has lived on this tiny chunk of concrete since he arrived in India's capital in 1990, just as the country's economy began opening up. "I came for work," he says, repeating the simple dream of millions of fellow Indians as he rocks back and forth in the hot summer night air. "At home there was nothing. Here there was a chance."

But like thousands of uneducated and unskilled migrants before him, Harun has learned that the new India doesn't shine for all its citizens. For 17 years, he has scraped by on day jobs laying bricks or digging trenches. His average earnings — $5 a week — are not enough to pay rent anywhere, much less to save to buy a home. Instead, Harun sleeps on a piece of cardboard and a blanket along the edge of the sidewalk as close to the road as he can get. "The wind from the passing cars cools me," he explains. "The faster and busier the traffic the better."

Poverty and homelessness are nothing new in India — more than two-thirds of its 1.1 billion people live on less than $2 a day. But the growing economy that has pushed millions into the middle class makes the plight of those left behind all the more stark. "If I found a good job I could rent a house and my wife could live here with me," says Harun, whose spouse moved back to her home state of Assam after their two baby children died of pneumonia a couple of years ago. "But life has not been easy and we have no choice but to live on the street."

Life for people like Harun may actually be getting worse as booming India seeks to establish itself as a global center of progress and prosperity. As New Delhi prepares to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, municipal authorities plan to clear large slum areas. They promise to provide alternative housing to people who can prove they have lived in Delhi since before 1998, but that excludes the many who lack the proper documentation, or who have arrived in the past nine years. That could make Harun's sidewalk "bedroom" a lot more crowded — if the police don't force him out of the city altogether.

Over the past decade, the New Delhi Municipal Corporation has established a dozen shelters to provide a few thousand beds for the city's homeless, who number 100,000 according to official estimates, or 500,000 according to community-based groups. Local charities provide meals and blankets in winter. But the size of the problem is overwhelming. In some parts of the city, the sidewalks are packed with sleeping bodies at night; turf wars are common. And then there are the police, who Delhi's pavement dwellers say regularly harass them and demand bribes. "Sometimes they ask for money, sometimes they'll break your arm," says Harun, whose wiry upper body is stripped bare in the heat. "You have to learn to keep out of their way." A few feet away a tiny baby lies asleep on its back like a dirty, discarded doll.

For some, the pain is numbed by alcohol or drugs. Harun's preference is marijuana, "twelve or thirteen cigarettes [a day] if I have money."

Across three lanes of buzzing traffic, perched on the median strip, lies Chote Lal, 57, who has spent the past 20 summers in Delhi working as a waiter for catering companies. He makes just over $3 a night, and in four or five months can save $75 to take home to his village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. But Lal complains that prices in Delhi have skyrocketed over the past two decades, and that he survives on meals donated by a city charity. Eight years ago he built a small hut behind a nearby train station, but the authorities razed it in 2002 and he has been back on the street ever since.

An Audi speeds past. A new Porsche. Lal pours a tiny packet of khani, or Indian tobacco, into his mouth. What does he make of the newer, more expensive cars flashing by? He hasn't noticed: "I never sit in the cars so how do I know that they're more expensive?"

At the foot of his burlap mattress, two young boys sprawl asleep, their arms and legs draping into the gutter. One is a homeless orphan, says Lal. The other works in a nearby tea house, and is paid so little he sleeps where he can. "The government wants to make this area look good like a foreign country," says Lal. "That's why the police hassle us and tell us to go back to our villages, go back to the places we're from. But there is no work there. The jobs are all here, the promise is here. It's just so hard to find it."