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The deplorable plight of Delhi's homeless

Wednesday, 19 February 2014 - 10:54am IST | Place: New Delhi | Agency: dna

Thousands of people sleep on the streets in the national capital, and live out their daily lives in dire straits. Some NGOs struggle to provide for their needs, while the citizens turn a blind eye to their misery. Richa Taneja highlights their stories.
  • Homeless people sleeping on a street in Delhi. All photographs by Sarika Gulati/DNA

During the 2010 Commonwealth Games, four settlements in Lodhi Colony near Sewa Nagar railway station (Prabhu Market Camp, Prabhu Market Extension Camp, Indira Gandhi Camp and Viklang Basti) were demolished to build a parking lot for the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and a link road to connect it with the Thyagaraj Stadium. Noor Ahmed, 29, stayed with his wife and three children at Viklang Basti (a colony for the disabled). Theirs was among the families that were forcefully evicted with a promise of rehabilitation. Only the disabled, however, were rehabilitated. The rest are still in search of a roof.
Ahmed recounts his experience of being uprooted from a place he called home, sadness filling his face. “My wife and I have learnt gardening and we work all day to beautify Lodhi Roads. From digging to prepping the soil, sowing flowering seeds and planting saplings, timely watering them and taking care of mulching, grafting, pruning to maintain the older ones, we do it all. Together, we earn about Rs 6,000, which is just about enough to feed us and our three children. The CWG happened; foreigners came in large numbers, played at the games and left. The parking lot is always empty now, and so is our dream of having our own little place. We try and save some money, but that’s...” He trails off as words fail him.

This is the story of thousands of Ahmeds, the homeless in Delhi. Picked up by the police and put behind the bars, some reappear after a few days, others vanish into oblivion. Children are stripped on a daily basis in search of stolen mobile phones and seldom sleep at night without being subjected to inhuman poking by beat constables. Women are molested, raped. 

For an increasing number of the struggling middle class, the homeless are encroachers occupying pavements that have been built for and with the money of hard working taxpayers. To them the homeless are a liability who live off subsidies. For the government, the homeless make the streets look filthy and dissuade international investors. They are merely numbers that need to be contained. For the police, they are criminals and drug addicts, who can be publicly beaten up, repeatedly arrested on grounds of suspicion and paraded in front of senior officials, and, at times the media, to show prompt action when a complaint is registered.
Few businesses acknowledge that the homeless are cheap labour working for them for a pittance under inhuman conditions. Few in the middle class want to acknowledge that the homeless are their drivers, cleaners, rickshaw pullers, sweepers, house maids and waiters, who work for them, at times for less than Rs 1,000 a month. The government doesn’t acknowledge that the rag pickers and people who go waist deep into sewage pipes and gutters are homeless too.

A homeless man on Delhi's streets. For 11 years, he has found work every single day. He mostly works as cheap labour (catering support) during weddings and others local festivals. He left his home in Odisha and continues to stay on the streets, rarely going to the shelters to sleep. The last time he visited Odisha was three years ago.


The beginning, or an end?

On August 29, 2010, The New Delhi edition of an English broadsheet carried in its inside pages the story of Laxmi, who on July 26, 2010, gave birth to a girl on a dirty roadside, without any assistance from the government, hospitals or the capital’s citizens. It recounted how the wailing of the newborn lying beside her dazed mother alerted a food-stall owner, who alerted a woman who ran a garment shop nearby. The shop owner, the story read, was shocked to see dogs circling the day-old infant. “‘The dogs looked like they would pounce on the infant,’” it read. “‘The mother told me she had given birth on her own, even pulling the child forcefully to cut the umbilical cord.’”

On any other day, the story would have offended several sensibilities for a few moments, and people would then continue with their lives after commenting on the government’s apathy. That particular day, however, the story caught the eye of Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, who on January 6, 2010, had initiated a suo moto case against the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) for demolishing a homeless night shelter on Pusa Roundabout and leaving 250 homeless out on the streets in the capital’s harsh winters. On January 7, 2010, Justice Shah ordered the MCD to rebuild the shelter, to not evict homeless in the winter on humanitarian grounds, and to take responsibility to protect the rights of homeless people in Delhi.

Justice Shah, while continuing to hear and follow up with the government on the progress of constructing shelters for the homeless, took cognisance of the newspaper report and pointed it out as a glaring example of human rights violation of the homeless.
The suo moto case in the high court gave, for the first time, tremendous visibility to the issues of the homeless. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) took this opportunity and submitted to the Supreme Court that malnutrition and hunger were underlying causes that made people vulnerable to extreme weather conditions, and connected the number of deaths of the homeless in Delhi that January to the Right (of every citizen) to Food case that they were fighting against the Government of India since 2001 in the Supreme Court.

The petitioners prayed that there was an urgent need for shelters in urban areas across the country, and requested the court to direct the central and state governments to provide one shelter to accommodate 100 people per one lakh of the population in every city with a population of over five lakh. The shelters, they said, should run 24 hours a day, all through the year and have basic facilities such as beds, toilets, drinking water, lockers, primary healthcare, de-addiction and recreation facilities. The matter was discussed and the Additional Solicitor General appearing for the Union of India submitted that all major cities will be provided with shelters.

This was hailed as a landmark order, and was to open doors for millions of homeless across the country.


Four years and 176 new shelters later, mindsets still same

According to the Zonal Integrated Police Network’s website, from January 1 to February 15, 2014, 341 unidentified dead bodies were found in Delhi. Most of these were of members of the homeless community, which, as per the census data, grew by a whopping 95.5% in the National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi in the past decade.
Not all deaths can be attributed to climatic conditions, as weak immune systems, drug addiction, sickness and withdrawal symptoms are also strong causes. The issue, thus, is larger than the implementation of the Supreme Court order, and the solution required needs to go beyond providing a temporary roof to the homeless. 
When looked at closely, the issue of the homeless and their alleviation opens up a Pandora’s box. Homelessness is not merely an “economic folly”; it lays bare the intrinsic issues of poverty, education, breach of trust, violence at home, beggary, child abuse, sexual violence, inter-religious tension, caste issues, trafficking, LGBT marginalisation and other such social ills. The deeper you delve into it, the more you are perturbed. Eventually, however, you too would pass the blame and the responsibility on to the government.
Paramjeet Kaur from Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, who has led a community outreach clinic near Jama Masjid for over 11 years and has been one of the pioneers in bringing the issue of homelessness to the forefront, says bluntly, “All citizens should be strictly bound by “duty of care” which is completely lacking here. It should be a shared responsibility. Often, we see people passing by a person lying on the footpath assuming him to be drunk. So, why shouldn’t the society be blamed? Does donating a blanket or talking about the issue fulfil our responsibility?”
The government and the society look at the homeless through the same lens. For them the homeless is one mass of people. In reality, they are single men, single women, women with children, families, youths, people with special needs and the elderly who battle illness, loneliness, depression, drug and physical abuse, malnutrition, exploitation, harassment and poverty. The solution, therefore, needs to go beyond merely providing a tin cabin with dusty floors and torn blankets.


The numbers, where the challenge begins

The challenge to rehabilitate the homeless begins at their conflicting numbers. The Census of India defines homeless as houseless population not living in census houses, where a census house is essentially a structure with a roof. The houseless population is likely to live “on the roadside, on pavements, in hume pipes, under staircases or in the open, in temples, on platforms and the like”. 
According to the 2001 census figures, Delhi had 21,895 homeless. However, an independent study conducted by Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan in 2000 revealed there were 52,765 homeless people in Delhi. The census figures v/s NGO numbers tussle, one would assume, must have resolved in 13 years. It hasn’t.
As per the 2011 census, Delhi’s homeless population stood at 46,724. In the same year, the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office (SCCO), DUSIB, Mother NGO (MNGO), Homeless Resource Centre (HRCs) (including the Indo-Global Social Service Society -IGSSS) conducted an independent enumeration of the homeless population in Delhi, the figure for which stands at 2,46,800.
“While the government figures have not gone beyond 50,000, NGOs believe around 1,40,000 people are homeless in Delhi,” says Amod Kanth, Founder of NGO Prayas and a member of the Joint Apex Committee – a body constituted on the Delhi High Court’s orders which has representation from DUSIB and NGOs working for homeless.

According to Paramjeet Kaur, the estimate, after many independent studies, has been that 1% of Delhi’s urban population is homeless, so the number currently stands close to 1,50,000.

The blame for the homeless deaths, according to Indu Prakash Singh, executive committee member of Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath (Urban Rights Forum: With the Homeless), who has been relentlessly working for the cause since 1999, lies with the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB). “The homeless are victims of government’s nonchalance, arrogance and corruption. In this case, it vests in DUSIB,” he says.

A night shelter for the homeless. Most homeless people are daily wage earners, who build our homes, wash our cars, pick up garbage, load and unload goods, serve at weddings/parties, pull rickshaws, water public gardens, sweep the streets, clean the drains – the key drivers of an urban economy. They are often subjected to police brutalities and are highly vulnerable to exploitation.


The DUSIB’s take on the homeless numbers borders on shocking. In the third week of January this year, after several homeless deaths were reported in the capital, DUSIB conducted a survey in 12 districts of Delhi with the help of 55 teams that had an engineering staff of 170 members and administrative staff of 60, and also members of area-specific NGOs. The report, according to Kamal Malhotra, Director of DUSIB, showed only 4,209 people sleeping outside on the roads, and 8,784 people inside the 211 night shelters. “Even if we double the number of people sleeping on the roads, the total would only be around 17,000. So the NGOs’ escalated figures have amused us to a great extent and since more and more NGOs are joining the cause of the homeless, and the government provides Rs 35,000 for running per shelter, we do smell a rat somewhere. The validity of the figures quoted by the NGOs is questionable,” he says.


Night shelters: Paucity or abundance?
This winter, a total of 229 night shelters were fully functional. More came up towards the end of January, to a total of 234. 

After initial deaths were reported this winter, the steadfastness shown by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government has been praised by voluntary organisations. “Arvind Kejriwal has been a big support. The previous government didn’t bat an eyelid despite the high court orders. They delayed and created stumbling blocks in the creation of new shelters. This year, in less than a month, over 76 shelters were created. Whereas, between 2000 and 2013, there were 175 shelters, most of which came after High Court and Supreme Court intervention,” says Indu Prakash Singh.
According to the DUSIB’s daily computer-generated occupancy report of the night shelters, between January 28 and February 3, the highest occupancy the 215 night shelters saw was 9,069. As per the DUSIB, the occupancy figures have not crossed 10,000 throughout this winter.
According to the DUSIB, the capacity of 229 night shelters, which includes 83 permanent shelters, 97 porta-cabins, 22 tents and 27 voluntary shelters is 16,959. “With an average occupancy of 50% in the shelters already built, there seems to be no need to create more. Further, it is a huge challenge to get those homeless people sleeping just 500 metres away from the shelters inside them. One can use some force, but in reality you can’t throw a person inside the shelter against his or her will,” says Malhotra.
“Going forward, our immediate challenge is to move towards more permanent shelters and find space in the walled city. The maximum number of homeless people are around this area, but getting permanent land allotted is a perennial fight,” he adds.

The question that arises then is why the capital’s homeless prefer to sleep on the streets in inhuman conditions, as opposed to the shelters. The problem, development sector professionals working with the homeless say, is with the condition, accessibility and location of the shelters.  
At nights, the shelters are packed, especially the ones in the Yamuna Pusta area. All one can see are rows of people wrapped in blankets, stacked one after the other like sacks. So much so, that there’s no space to walk. Once you’ve got your space, curl up and don’t move, appears to be the norm. There’s an unpleasant smell inside the shelter, a culmination of alcohol, suffocation, perspiration, and body odour from unwashed bodies crammed in a room. This is usually the scene inside the men’s shelter. The one with families and women are still breathable.

A homeless shelter at the Yamuna Pushta, New Delhi. (Yamuna Pushta is the pushta (embankment) on both sides of the river). The occupancy of a shelter depends on basic facilities like availability of toilets, drinking water and, most importantly, the behaviour of the caretaker.


The other cause of distress to the homeless is inadequate toilet facilities. The toilets near the Jor Bagh shelters, which are operated by the MCD, are shut during the night. There are three shelters in the vicinity and the non-availability of toilets during the nights is a cause of worry for the homeless families. 

Kamla Tai, 56, prefers to live outside the shelters. She once belonged to a well-to-do family in Haryana. After her husband’s demise and her daughter’s marriage, she was abandoned by her in-laws. She and a few other homeless have made arrangements for themselves near Hanuman Mandir in Connaught Place.

She says, “I cannot live inside the shelters. There’s no privacy and I don’t feel very safe inside. All kinds of women sleep there, some also do dhanda. There’s always a fight brewing... women fighting over petty issues, some would keep the television and light on until late night. There’s constant disturbance and scrutiny, so I decided to live outside.” 

While Kamla’s reasons are that of privacy, personal hygiene, disturbance and constant noise, there are some who prefer to stay outside as they continuously cough, vomit or have diarrhoea, and don’t find the night shelter’s environment conducive. And some also don’t find it right to disturb others sleeping beside them.
“Adequate number of shelters as per the Supreme Court’s norm (one shelter per one lakh urban population) with a capacity corresponding with the concentration of the homeless people in that locality should be made available. Location, capacity, accessibility and utility should be the main criteria to open a shelter,” says Kaur.

“The current occupancy of above 200 shelters is negligible as to the total count of the homeless. Why is it so? We need to question and review that. Shelter is the first step towards addressing the issue. Also, mere passing on the accountability only to the state is not enough. The state should create apt infrastructure support at the shelters,” she adds.


Beyond shelters: Gender, health, livelihood and security
Every homeless person at the night shelter knows Sunil Kumar Aledia. He is Delhi’s 24X7X365 Homeless Citizen’s Helpline – 9811327037, tirelessly working for the homeless since 2000. Be it aadhar cards, medical help, opening of accounts or just sharing troubles, he is the go-to man. “The women are the vulnerable lot, some widowed, some elderly, some lactating, some sick, some who have suffered violence at home, been neglected, suffered from malnutrition, impregnated and then left, faced sexual abuse, infidelity, trafficking or forced into prostitution, used as surrogates and denied their freedom to live. A lot of care, compassion and patience is required to delve into their issues, which are a result of a prejudiced social structure. Some of them want to work but health does not permit them. I have felt helpless many times, but I give it all I can,” he says.
Talking about the deficit of funds, he says, “While the government provides Rs 35,000 to caretaking NGOs, the money is only enough to provide the salaries of three caretakers, who work in three eight-hour shifts every day, a sweeper and some maintenance charges. As per the Supreme Court order of 2010, the caretaking NGO needs to provide counselling, lockers, recreational facilities etc., but where are the funds? In constrained budgets, only the most essential things can be provided.”
Two years ago, the death of a homeless patient in front of AIIMS hospital on December 27 sent shivers down people’s spines. The 33-year-old man from Bihar had come for a check-up for a brain-tumour with his wife and two children. While the doctors allegedly refused to see him as he came in earlier than his appointment date, the family stayed outside battling the winter chill. Discarded cartons to keep warm from the biting cold were of no help, and on one cold night, the man froze to death. The picture of the numb wife and children wailing around the body of this man pierces the heart and makes one ponder the value of human life. 

This incident was one of the rare ones that came into the limelight, probably because it happened right outside AIIMS. But there is an equally heart wrenching story behind each of the 288 deaths reported between January 1 and February 10 this year, and thousands of other deaths on the streets in the past decade.

Homeless people sleep on cots at Meena Bazaar, near Jama Masjid. There used to be a shelter here with a capacity to house 1,000 people until 2001, when it was closed on the orders of the then Union Urban Minister. Now, the homeless sleep outside. The cots come at a cost – Rs 30 per person: Rs 10 for cot, Rs 10 for mattress and Rs 10 for quilt. This business has the support of local police, who take money from the rajaiwalas. Sleeping here also ensures that there will be no police beating here. Elsewhere, police brutality is common.


According to Dr. Amod Kumar, Community Head of Department, St. Stephens Hospital and Nodal Officer of Mother NGO, it’s not only about giving the homeless shelters. The large number of deaths is not due to the cold alone. It is primarily because the immune system of the homeless has become so weak that a moderate change in the weather can cause irreparable harm to the body. “Mental illness and homelessness go hand-in-hand as proper healthcare is not reachable and accessible to both the categories. We have Human Resource Centre rescue vans and CAT ambulances working round the clock at night to rescue the needy homeless. My experience says most of them are deeply sick, in drunken condition and on the verge of dying. They need to be taken to the intensive care unit as their mental faculties and bodily functions start to slow down. Why does one have to arrive at such stage to be treated? That’s a dark and delicate area that raises questions on medicine and healthcare in our country,” he says.

Kumar also emphasises maintaining a level of hygiene inside the shelters. He advises that the linen bed-covers need to be washed at least every three days, if not every day. The blankets have lice, bed bugs, germs and are infected. Just because someone is poor, he asks, does that mean they lose the right to hygiene? A sourced blanket can lead to further infections. Therefore, personal cleanliness and hygiene must be inculcated.
With the help of NGOs, there should be a desk to connect the homeless back to their states. So, apart from bringing in night shelters, providing a conducive habitat and support system to the needy has be the prime focus, he adds.
Kaur sums up some major challenges that lie ahead. “While the state is busy fulfilling the targets given through the court orders, there is massive lack of trust between the NGOs and the government. Without balancing the two, the road ahead is full of doldrums. In high concentration areas, the capacity of shelters and their numbers need to be increased. Roping in other concerned departments like Social Welfare, Health and Family welfare, Social justice and empowerment, Labour etc. can only help in weeding out the issue altogether. A special Disaster Management Board must tackle winter woes. For a large chunk, integrated homes are required and finally, regular review of the progress of the work, participatory approach, learning from the experience is required.”
“Above all, combating homelessness is a collective effort and must be fought together keeping aside individual differences,” she concludes.
A large number of the homeless are dependent on injecting, inhaling and taking drugs which harm their mental faculties and also lead them into petty crimes or beggary, thus also making them “the first finger of suspicion” after a theft or any other nefarious activity in the area. Special drug de-addiction centres to rehabilitate them is also the need of the hour.  
While we collectively ponder over solutions for the homeless in Delhi, the community, in its limited capacity, offers helping hands to each other. There are young adults who have started learning skills like Teflon-coating cars, computer literacy, sewing, weaving and gardening to support themselves. There are instrument players, poets, drivers, painters, teachers, mini-shop owners, rickshaw pullers and house-maids among them. There are NGO teachers who come regularly to educate children. Encouraging them and sharing knowledge with them can propel them into making their lives much better.
The solution to deal with homelessness is all in place, and has been in place for over half a decade. The DUSIB claims the shelters are in place, the health department claims healthcare is in order, the education department claims everything is on track. Why then are hundreds still dying invisible deaths in the national capital? It’s a question each one of us needs to ponder.


Richa Taneja is Manager, Digital Content, Zee Media Corporation for I am in DNA of India iamin.in.

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