Homeless people sleeping on footpaths in winter is a common sight in Delhi.
DELHI's population has been growing over the years, and with it the number of people braving the icy North Indian winter. Cold waves are an annual feature and so are the frozen bodies of homeless people.
According to reports in the media, in 2002 the police found 3,040 corpses during the winter. Of these, no fewer than 400 were those of people who died in a single cold wave.
However, the government has done precious little to build a comprehensive policy on urban homelessness or even conducted a proper census of the homeless.
Paramjeet Kaur, director of Aashray Adhikaar Abhiyaan (AAA), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focussing on housing rights, said: "According to our survey, in 2000 there were 52,765 people out on the streets. But we missed at least half. Currently, 12 shelters are run by the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi]. Ten of these are only night shelters, and about 2,500 people can be accommodated. All of them are pay-and-use ones, with Rs.6 for 12 hours' occupancy."
Last year, about 70 deaths were attributed to severe winter cold, a marked improvement over previous years. This was possible because a network of NGOs was working in collaboration with the municipal corporations of Delhi and New Delhi. Religious institutions such as the Sacred Hearts Cathedral and Gurdwara Bangla Sahib and educational institutions such as the Zakir Hussain College and the Zeenat Mahal School, besides a few municipal schools, opened their doors for the homeless despite the extra load on water and sewerage facilities.
According to a report based on the consultation `Space for the Homeless and Marginalised in Delhi', organised by Action Aid India and the Slum and Resettlement Wing of the MCD in July 2003, the total homeless population in India is 78 million (based on the 2001 Census). "This problem was more acute in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, which put together were reported to have 78 per cent of the houseless population," the report states.
Even the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) admits that at least 1 per cent of the population in Delhi is homeless. This means that no fewer than 140,000 people live on the streets of Delhi. This figure does not include those who sleep in carts or rickshaws or under flimsy plastic-sheet roofs.
Lalit Batra of the Hazard Centre, an NGO working for housing rights, said: "At least one lakh jhuggis (slums) have been demolished since 2000. In Yamuna-Pushta alone, we estimate that around 50,000 people have been rendered homeless. Only 30,000 were rehabilitated."
The agenda report of a Conference of Ministers of Housing, from the States and Union Territories, organised by the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation, states: "It is the ultimate goal of the National Policy on Housing and Habitat, 1998, to provide the basic need of shelter for all, but until such objective is achieved, it is necessary to provide some kind of shelter to the absolutely shelterless urban poor, particularly street children, destitute women and migrant labourers, etc."
The scheme for providing night shelters for the urban homeless was introduced in 1988-89. According to the government, the scheme was supposed to progress as per demand. This means that the States would put forward proposals, which would then be sanctioned by Housing and Urban Development Corporation Ltd. (HUDCO). By July 2004, HUDCO had sanctioned 99 night shelters across India. Of these, 40 were in Maharashtra.
The National Slum Development Programme sanctioned Rs.14,053 lakhs to Delhi between 2000-04. The entire amount has been listed as `unspent balance'.
Palika Ashray Grih was a shelter that catered to women and was run by the AAA. But the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) took it away just before the onset of winter, rendering the inhabitants homeless again.
Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, United Nations Commission on Human Rights, agrees that the government has no definite policy on housing in Delhi. "Historically, we have a grave crisis of housing. Every time the municipality demolishes slums, the vast majority are rendered homeless. We believe this is a violation of human rights. During the recent brutal eviction of women from the Palika Hostel, there were several human rights violations," Miloon Kothari said.
The Palika Hostel was the first initiative by the NDMC towards a women's shelter. On October 16, the women and children were forcibly evicted. Many of them sustained injuries during the procedure. The women set up tents outside the building and continue to sit there on a hunger strike.
On November 5, NDMC officials pulled out the tent poles when the women and children were sleeping inside. The AAA team intervened and has since met Chief Minister Sheila Dixit. The AAA has sent telegrams to the Prime Minister's Office, contacted the National Commission for Women and complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NDMC and the Chief Minister's Office directed that the women be shifted to Nirmal Chhaya, a home for destitute women. But the women refused to move because the complex is often mistaken for a detention centre and is in common parlance called the `women's prison', being situated next to Tihar Jail. Besides, it is a short-stay home, and has no provision for housing women over 45 years of age.
Officialdom does not seem to be geared to finding a solution to the problem of homelessness.
Said Nisha Agarwal of the Slum and Juvenile Justice wing of the MCD: "We have 24 children's homes. The primary job is to look for the street children's original homes and families. They are brought to us through the police, concerned citizens and NGOs and so on. Night shelters are not our mandate. That is the MCD's baby."
She added that night shelters were part of the poverty alleviation scheme of the government. "There are 17 or 18 night shelters. They open another 17 or so during winter. Last year we helped the MCD cope with the severe winter. We helped monitor the shelters but we don't really have the budgets or the staff."
Madan Thapaliyal, of the NDMC said: "We are not equipped to run shelters for the homeless population. We don't have the infrastructure to cope. From December 15 onwards, we will give some extra night shelters. We make arrangements on the requirement of the Central government. The responsibility belongs to the State's Welfare Department."
Jitendra Narain, Director of the Department of Social Welfare, explains that in a letter to U.K. Vohra, Secretary, NDMC, he had mentioned that though Nirmal Chhaya was available to the former residents of the Palika Hostel, the timing of the proposal to shift them was incorrect, with the winter being round the corner.
Rashmi Singh, Joint Director in the Department of Social Welfare, said the right place to go and ask questions was the Urban Development Ministry. "We will not shrug off responsibility, because anything to do with social welfare is our business. The Census doesn't even give us the right figures. The Secretary of this department had estimated 10,000 homeless people for Delhi. Yet, there is no formal survey."
She clarified that the problem had to be tackled through a collective effort. "The MCD has 17 night shelters and seven converted community centres, during winter. The Development Commissioner's office sets up temporary camps. We have one short-stay home for women, Nirmal Chhaya. The Young Women's Christian Association has some facilities and there's Bapno Ghar for women. The NDMC has old-age homes. Some NGOs are supported by us round the year. But we cannot usurp the government's role and mandate for urban homelessness. The Urban Development Ministry is the nodal body."
Miloon Kothari believes that although "nobody takes responsibility for the poor, from a legal perspective, according to the NDMC Act of 1994, the NDMC is responsible. Any municipality of the world has to take up the responsibility."
According to Paramjeet Kaur, a solution was not hard to find. "The State government needs to open up spaces. The NDMC has only one shelter at Nizamuddin. You can't bar certain zones. Delhi has the infrastructure. We only need to make multipurpose use of existing government buildings. Spaces over parking lots are available. Community centre buildings and Baarat Ghars can be used. We have shown the MCD and the NDMC that this isn't a wasteful venture. After years, the MCD actually made a profit in the year when we ran five community centres as night shelters."
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