There are more homeless people in India than the entire population of Mauritius. In fact, if you gathered all of India’s homeless people and put them all in a new country, its population would be larger than that of 83 countries.
Yet homelessness is not evenly distributed across the country’s 640 districts, an analysis of census data reveals. Instead, the homelessness rate — that is, the number of homeless people as a share of the general population — follows broad geographic patterns.
For instance, districts in the north and west of the country have higher rates of homelessness than those in the south and east. And certain cities, particularly those that attract labourers from surrounding farms and villages, have particularly high rates of homelessness.
The district of Kanpur Nagar, which encompasses the city of Kanpur in central Uttar Pradesh, has the highest rate of homelessness in the country. There, more than 18 people in a thousand are homeless.
“Kanpur is a hub of trading activities for more than a dozen districts,” said S.P. Singh, a professor at Kanpur’s Christ Church College who has partially converted his own village house into a shelter for the parents of young people who have left to seek work in the city. “Young people have abandoned their villages to settle down in the city.”
But the city often proves inhospitable, and migrants who cannot make ends meet are forced to sleep on the streets. Such is the fate of migrants in cities across the country. Kolkata, where more than 15 people in a thousand are homeless, has the second highest rate of homelessness among India’s 640 districts. Mumbai, where more than 12 people in a thousand are homeless, ranks fourth.
And three districts in the National Capital Territory of Delhi — Central, New Delhi, and North — rank third, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in homelessness rate.
“If you talk to these homeless people, and ask them their hometown, almost none of them are from Delhi itself. They are from smaller towns which are around the capital, mainly from UP and Bihar,” said Irtiza Quraishi, the president of Marham, an NGO that provides housing and job training for homeless people in Delhi.
Young people come seeking work and money, “but they find it’s completely different from what they think, and they end up being homeless,” Quraishi said.
Many of them find themselves in homeless shelters — some run by NGOs like Prayas, which houses some 4,000 people in its Delhi shelters, according to founder Amod Kanth. Kanth said the Census of India likely undercounts homeless people across the country and that the actual number of homeless people could be at least three times as high.
Whatever the number is, those who find themselves in homeless shelters at night often sleep in cramped quarters. In view of this, advocate Sugriv Dubey submitted a petition Tuesday before the Delhi High Court asking the government to provide more homeless shelters and to create separate shelters for males and females, in part to protect homeless girls from sexual violence.
“My submission is that if the number of these places is not increased, and boys and girls are not separated, then what will happen? People will sleep on the footpath,” Dubey said. “In the summer, they will die with the heat. In winter, they will die with the cold. So at least let them reside peacefully. Give them some space.”