Human tide sweeps daily into India's slums

New Delhi - Every train that pulls into Nizamuddin station in New Delhi brings a new wave of migrants to this mega-city of more than 10 million people. My bureau is on the main road leading away from Nizamuddin station, and amidst the cycle-rickshaws whizzing by, the saffron-robed pilgrims, schoolboys, and businessmen with cheap briefcases, I can easily spot the newcomers.

It is their dazed, disoriented look that gives these migrants away, as they wander up my road. They carry few possessions - cooking gear and a few blankets - and have many children. Few can read and often they will halt strangers and ask them where an address is, one scrawled on a note.

That address is their only hope, their only connection in this teeming city to a relative, perhaps, or a fellow villager, who can offer shelter and a job. If they are Muslim (as many are, since they come from neighbouring Bangladesh) they are usually directed across the four-lane Mathura Road to the shrine of a sufi saint, Hazrat Nizamuddin. There, in the alleys, beside the free kitchens, they squat with their children, waiting for rice and lentils ladled out of giant vats. These scraps are probably more than they ate back in their villages.

At night, they sleep on the narrow verge in Mathura Road. Some earn a few rupees begging at the traffic lights, others root through rubbish heaps alongside pigs and stray dogs.

The stronger migrants may get jobs as market porters, rickshaw-cyclists or set up a roadside stall selling cracked coconuts or a sliced cucumber with masala. Their wives or daughters may work as servants or on a construction site, balancing 12 bricks on their head as they climb rickety bamboo scaffolds for one of the new gleaming offices built to house multi- national companies.

Some pavement-dwellers may graduate to a slum hut, roofed with plastic sheeting and held down with branches and broken bicycle wheels.

A one-room slum hut next to the nahalla, the foetid, drainage canal which runs past the cremation pyres near Nizamuddin, costs about 500 rupees rent a month, usually paid to the local gangsters.

The slums around my place usually have electricity, illegal of course. Every electricity post is rigged with hundreds of wires leading down into the slum dwellings, and because of this illegal tapping (local garment shops and factories also do it) Delhi is cursed with power black-outs. Twice a day, for up to six hours at a time, in 111 degree heat, my electricity goes. The poor suffer, while the rich in New Delhi crank up their noisy generators to charge their ceiling fans and fridges.

Yet, I don't disagree with the UN Population Fund's recent conclusion that "This urban future is inevitable and it should not be feared." For the millions of people in South Asia, driven away from the countryside by poverty, wars or natural calamity, cities such as New Delhi offer a better life.