Every winter, we come across news reports on the cold wave in North India leaving people dead in its wake. What is left unsaid is that these people were homeless. The UP bureaucrat who callously remarked that “no one dies of cold” was partly correct while referring to deaths in the relief camps “housing” the Muzaffarnagar riot victims. It is not just the cold but a potent mix of the cold, homelessness and poverty that causes almost all cold wave deaths. While the government can do nothing about the cold, it certainly has a responsibility to provide clothes and shelter and feed indigent citizens. Unfortunately, most parts of North India, except for Delhi, are yet to develop an institutional mechanism that can help the homeless poor save their lives in winter. In Delhi too, this past week, news of the death of two unidentified persons, has forced the freshly sworn-in Aam Aadmi Party government to issue directions to set up 100 new night shelters.
With the government retreating from many spheres of civic activity, it was left to NGOs to recognise the problems of the homeless and bring the need for night shelters into public discourse in the early 2000s. By the winter of 2009, Delhi had 17 permanent and 42 temporary tent shelters. In May 2010, the Supreme Court stepped in and directed all states to make large-scale arrangements for the homeless. When a homeless pregnant woman gave birth on a busy street in August 2010, the Delhi High Court mounted an energetic monitoring of the homeless issue. As a result, Delhi has now had 84 permanent shelters and 64 temporary shelters for two years running. After incidents of tent shelters catching fire were reported,the temporary tent shelters were replaced in 2012 with fire-resistant porta cabins that had wooden floors, laminated vinyl exteriors, iron-sheet walls, fire-retardant roofs, high ceilings, windows, and solar lighting. But these 150 shelters have a maximum capacity of 13,000 compared to Delhi’s estimated homeless population of 80,000. However, the actual numbers that pour into these shelters is much lesser.
The lesson from Delhi is that more shelters are needed in areas with a high density of homeless persons. Contrasted with the public perception that homeless persons are into drugs or soliciting alms, or are people who have fallen out of society’s pale, most are actually migrant labourers doing works like rickshaw-pulling, construction jobs, rag picking, and other seasonal jobs in cities. The high rents and inadequate housing in urban areas forces many to sleep on streets.
Thanks to media drives and civil society efforts, blanket and woollen clothes distribution reaches many of Delhi’s homeless. The inordinate media attention on Delhi, however, is a red herring that misses the bigger picture. The largest number of homeless deaths are reported from the other North Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan. Despite the Supreme Court orders, night shelters are inadequate and the system is dysfunctional in these states.
Perhaps, the likes of the UP bureaucrat should spend a wintry night in the open without shelter and food to understand who, and how, the cold kills.