They are omnipresent in the city; sleeping on pavements, building settlements under flyovers and in vacant lots. The Indo-Global Social Service Society, an NGO working for the homeless, defines them as 'CityMakers' - we see them knock on our windows at traffic lights, but they also make up the city's transient workforce (taking up jobs as labourers, rickshaw pullers, sweepers, ragpickers) - without whom the city would "either crawl or come to a standstill."
There are over 3 lakh homeless people living in the national capital and till date the government has set up only 150 rain baseras or night shelters where they can find refuge from the biting winter.
Ten days ago, the Delhi government, in a response to the High Court, stated that there were adequate night shelters with necessary facilities for the city's homeless, as per the Master Plan 2021.
Our rounds around the city, however, show that while an attempt towards providing relief has been made, the government's promises are far from its execution. Of the 150 shelters, we visited 22 permanent and temporary shelters. The earlier tent shelters were replaced by bright porta-cabin accommodations, many in just the last 12 months, after some tents caught fire. But most shelters suffer from lack of security, unsanitary conditions, water shortage, etc.
While different government departments are to provide these, many social watch NGOs say they are not up to the mark. "Maintenance is the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board's responsibility, but they are failing in this," says Indu Prakash Singh of IGSSS.
Across from the Hyatt hotel in a sprawling RK Puram park is a dimly-lit temporary shelter. Inside, the caretaker, Haroon Khan, 42, wedges a shoe under one of the double doors to keep it from swinging open. The other half, broken for six months, is propped against the wall. Outside, sludge surrounds the broken water tank and a pool of human filth collects under the outhouses. As plain as day, the shelter is far from adequate.
But the residents try to keep their chins up. Gounnasegarin, 57, has stayed here for a year. The Pondicherry-native says it is "better than sleeping under the Munirka flyover." In near-fluent English, he says, "I am suffering. Today I had only four cups of tea, but I must be satisfied with that." Other residents also complain of starvation - even though the shelter's managing NGO, The Credence, is one of the few that sends food daily. A cook prepares meals sufficient for 35 people, the average number of residents. On our second visit, we did see sacks of supplies - rice, dal, oil and atta - at the shelter. (It is, however, to be noted that it is not mandatory to serve food at shelters).
At another shelter near Munirka, run by the Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses (SPYM), food is also distributed. But the shelter leaves much to be desired. The wooden floor creaks under the weight of 15 homeless families. The shelter lies in a makeshift garbage dump, pigs loiter around the broken toilets. Conditions are deplorable but for Tula Ram (37), the disabled caretaker, the shelter has been a boon.
A homeless man himself, Ram finds more than just sanctuary here. His duties earn him a monthly income of Rs 7500 which helps him support his wife and three children. At Okhla, another SPYM-managed shelter employs a disabled man called Kalektar. The 35-year-old now lives a more fortunate life than the dozens living underneath the Modi Mills flyover, just 50 feet from the male-only shelter.
Next to the Okhla train tracks, multiple families live in squalor unaware that there is a family night shelter a few kilometres away in Nehru Place. Despite DUSIB's public awareness campaign last year, many of the homeless have no idea that these shelters exist. At Kalka Mandir, dispossessed citizens sleep on the ground, not knowing that they could get blankets at the nearby night shelter. Says Dr Javed Khan, of Mother NGO, "This year there was no awareness campaign like last time. We need programmes each year, possibly the whole year round, because most homeless people are migrants."
A few even actively avoid these shelters. Right behind two shelters near Jama Masjid, which still had vacancies, people rented cots and mats for Rs. 30 per night. "Why would anyone sleep in dirty shelters when they can get clean and warm cots and sleep peacefully here," says the woman who runs the business.
Near Tilak Nagar market is one of Delhi's cleanest night shelters. It is well-lit, with a few decorative lights for the festive season. Of the five temporary shelters in a one-kilometre radius, people prefer this one. "The other shelters are unsafe. They're frequented by pickpockets and goons," says Mahesh Yadav, 40, who has spent 15 years sleeping on footpaths.
Electricity and water are a huge problem. The Khyber Pass shelter only gets light from the adjacent Metro depot. "Despite repeated complaints our electricity hasn't been restored," says the caretaker Kamal Kumar. Even in Urdu Bazaar, year-old shelters still lack an electric meter; and at the Kalka Mandir shelter, a single bulb hangs from a wire.
One problem common to each rain basera we visited was non-functioning toilets. Strange that on one hand the government aims to eliminate open defecation, but cannot even maintain simple toilet facilities. At the shelter behind Sai Baba Mandir on Lodhi Road, there are no shelter toilets. There is a Sulabh toilet complex which closes as early as ten at night. Meanwhile at the Kalka and Majnu Ka Tila shelters, the toilets were chained shut. Amar Nath, CEO of DUSIB maintains, however, that the shelter facilities are adequate. But he does concede that, "These shelters are still not enough. We are working to set up more shelters but it will take years to complete them."
Security is a big concern. Arun Kumar, 24, spends the day at the Nehru Place shelter. But at night, he has to sleep outside. "A local thug bullies and beats us. He threatened to kill me and he can find me here," says Kumar. He has no one to turn to for help. Even the police ignore complaints from this shelter.
A similar problem pervades the shelter behind the Hilton hotel in Janakpuri. Hidden in a dark corner of a barren field, beside a pile of sewer pipes, the shelter is replete with dirty mattresses. Here, we witnessed firsthand Delhi's 'finest'. A policeman stood beside a car enjoying a stiff drink with his comrades. A resident at the shelter, requesting anonymity even says, "Local goons bring girls to the shelter, and instead of arresting them, the cops come and beat us."
The Yamuna Pushta lined by six temporary shelters is probably the worst location. Bordering the Yamuna, these shelters are infested with mosquitoes in the summer, and temperatures fall to the lowest here during winter. In 2004 after MCD's eviction drive of slums most of the slum dwellers here became homeless. And after several cold deaths, temporary night shelters were set up. Dr Mukesh Kumar who works at the Tihar Jail Hospital visits here weekly. "Although alcohol consumption is widespread, almost 60% of these people suffer from some sort of substance abuse and need therapy," says Kumar, a psychiatrist.
Permanent shelters are comparatively better than temporary ones. The Fatehpuri shelter, one of the oldest and largest, is adjacent to Old Delhi railway station. Packed almost to capacity (400 persons), the shelter is surprisingly clean. The Govindpuri permanent shelter is soon to double as a recovery centre for sick homeless people. Recently ten hospital beds were put in. The facility also has lockers for residents.
Each shelter is like a puzzle missing a piece. If one has ample light, another is pitch black; one has new mattresses covered in plastic, others are just carpeted; some are safe, others are not; some are clean, others filthy. But it's perhaps not incorrect to say that none are "adequate" by most standards.
* The number of homeless persons in 2000 was taken from a survey done by Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan in the same year.