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Homeless in the cold

According to one report, India has a total homeless population of 78 million (based on the 2001 census). Most of them are concentrated in the cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. How do these people survive the cold nights out on the streets?

This January 2006, an intense cold wave swept across northern India. Delhi experienced one of its coldest winters in 70 years, with temperatures dipping to 0.2 degrees Celsius. People were shocked and amused to find the roofs of their cars coated in a thin layer of ice! Those who were lucky to have heating systems inside their homes stayed indoors, protecting themselves against the chilly wind.

But what about people who live on the streets, sleep on the pavements and keep themselves warm by burning dry leaves and twigs to make a little fire? How do they survive such severe temperatures?

According to a report brought out in 2003 by ActionAid India and the slum resettlement wing of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), India’s total homeless population stands at 78 million, based on the 2001 census. Most of them are concentrated in the cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi. Clearly, homelessness is not just a problem of surviving a harsh winter. It is part of the much larger problem of poverty and destitution in big cities.

How do people become homeless? In any big city there is always a severe crisis of housing. Many people live in slums that are built on illegal land. Every time the city municipality demolishes a slum, thousands of people become homeless. In Delhi alone, over 1 lakh slums have been demolished since 2000. In the Yamuna Pushta area, near ITO, 50,000 people have lost their homes. Of them, only 30,000 have been rehabilitated.

Not surprisingly, the maximum number of homeless people includes street children, abandoned women and migrant labourers.

It’s not that the government is unaware of the magnitude of the problem. The MCD runs 12 night shelters, one exclusively for women. The total capacity of these shelters is 2,500. They follow a system of ‘pay and use’: each person has to pay Rs 6 for 12 hours. In return, they are given blankets, mats and woollen clothing.

Yet the occupancy in these night shelters is low because of lack of basic facilities like toilets, clean blankets and clothes, and lack of safety. MCD officials admit that they do not have the infrastructure to cater to the needs of so many homeless people.

Other organisations like religious and educational institutions, supervised by civil society organisations (CSOs) have stepped in to help. Some time ago, St Columbus School in central Delhi was in the news for opening its doors and offering shelter to the homeless. But a lot more than simple charity has to done. 

We need a more dynamic approach to tackle the problem. To begin with, there is an urgent need to use up common community space like underground parking lots, community centre buildings and marriage halls as night shelters. More and more schools and colleges need to open their halls and classrooms to provide shelter to the homeless.

Safety at the shelters can be assured if the caretakers are more vigilant and keep a sharp eye on money and belongings. A basic minimum infrastructure of clean blankets and proper toilets can be maintained with the least amount of effort. 

More than anything else, what is required is a change in attitude of the ordinary citizen who regards homeless people as criminals and beggars. The government too considers the homeless, who lack identity cards and fixed addresses, as people who are not part of a voting constituency. The police regularly raid night shelters to look for criminals, though a large percentage of those seeking shelter are employed.     

So even as we enjoy the Delhi winter with its riot of flowers, its cold, crisp mornings, and foggy nights, we must remember that as many as 1.4 lakh people live out on the streets. This number does not include those who sleep on carts, rickshaws and under makeshift tarpaulin tents, because they are not classified as homeless. If they were, the number would rise to around 8-10 lakhs.

Perhaps what is required is a comprehensive national policy to deal with urban homelessness, the ultimate goal being to provide the basic need of shelter to all.

-- Suroopa Mukherjee   

January 2006

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