Imagine what it is like to not know where your next meal will come from and where you will be able to sleep in the night. This is the fate of the 1.7 million destitute people in India (these are official figures, NGOs say the numbers are much more). The rising number of destitute people in the country seems to have exercised Union social justice minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot, who has said all stakeholders should share their views to find a solution to this problem.
He was chairing a pre-legislative consultation meeting on the Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016, convened by his ministry. He said the Bill would provide protection, care, support, shelter, training and other services to all people who are destitute. It would help to first understand that the term destitute and beggar are not interchangeable. The state has never been particularly sensitive to the needs of either.
Let us take the question of shelter, which Mr Gehlot has said the Bill would provide. It will be an uphill task to actually do this. There are an estimated 57,000 homeless people in Mumbai, which has only seven official shelters that can house 100 people each. In Delhi, it is a little bit better with 184 shelters for 46,724 homeless. And shelter is not all they need; they need food, clothing and some form of income. In the past, it was routine for the police to swoop down on people living on pavements, round them up and transport them to a place where they would be out of sight. This was done before the Commonwealth Games, ostensibly so as to not offend the sensibilities of the visitors from abroad.
There are several other problems that the homeless face. At least 25% of them suffer from some mental illness. This requires long-term treatment and not just shelter and food. Around 90% of the women destitute are victims of domestic violence. They need counselling. Women are particularly vulnerable even in shelters as they are easy prey for sexual predators.
The plight of the destitute is compounded by the fact that they also face extortion by the police, which are supposed to protect them. It is all very fine to say that the Bill provides for their protection and well being. In reality, the majority are still out there in the open at the mercy of anyone who chooses to harass them.
HT Special: Roofless in Delhi