Six years ago, Farida, 36, arrived in Delhi with her husband. Both of them had dreams of building a new life for themselves. Six years have passed by and Farida is still where she was on the first night she spent in the city; under the Okhla flyover and sleeping in the open.
“We had thought we will build a small hut somewhere in the city after a few years but we haven’t even been able to put up a tarpaulin tent,” she says, as she kneads dough for dinner. “Dilli main sab mil sakta hai, bas ghar nahi (One can get everything in Delhi except a house),” she adds.
Farida is one among many people who left their homes for a better life in Delhi. But the national capital is not an easy city to live in. Most people, like Farida, are still as homeless as they were when they came here.
The Delhi government, giving the problem of homelessness a transitory facade, has, for a decade now, been providing temporary shelters for the city’s homeless. Ironically, more than half these shelters come up during the winters and are open only at night, leaving the young children, women and the old people out on the streets during the day.
As per government data, the shortage of houses in 2008 was 24.7 million across the country. In Delhi, this number is 1.13 million. The majority of this shortage is among houses for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS).
“In recent years, the maximum number of housing that has come up are for those belonging to the high income group and the middle income group. Housing for EWS sector has been neglected,” says Indu Prakash Singh, technical advisor, Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), an NGO working for the homeless.
The Delhi Development Authority is supposed to build 40,000 houses for the EWS by 2013. Out of these, work on 17,000 has already started. But if experts are to be believed, this will not solve the problem.
“The government can provide all the low-cost housing it wants, but it will be useless until this scheme is not followed up with permanent shelters,” says Paramjeet Kaur, director, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), an NGO that is managing 24 of the city’s night shelters.
“Most of the homeless barely have enough money to eat two meals a day. Buying a house, no matter how inexpensive, is almost impossible for them. Permanent 24-hour shelters are the only solution,” she says.
The Masterplan of Delhi 2021 has laid clear guidelines for the creation of shelters for the homeless. According to the plan, there should be one shelter for every one lakh population in the city. These shelters should be located near work centres.
“Most of the homeless work in and around central Delhi. Ironically, this is where there is a huge shortage of shelters. In the NDMC area there is no permanent shelter. The homeless will be back on the streets once the winters are over,” says Singh from IGSSS.
Although the Delhi government provided 150 shelters this year, the occupancy levels, compared to that of the previous two years, was less.
The government puts up shelters where there were no homeless. In some case, all male shelters were put up where family shelters were needed. As a result, many shelters went empty.
But it is not only the government whose attitude has hurt the homeless. The society’s response has left much to be desired.
When a temporary shelter was set up in the park near Hanuman Mandir, Connaught Place, the area’s residents’ welfare association went to the high court and demanded that the shelter be removed.
“These people talk loudly at night; they are rowdy and dirty and have no sense of privacy. Women bathe out in the open. We don’t want their influence on our children,” says a resident of Mandir Marg not wishing to be named.
While people are ready to donate clothes, blankets and food to the homeless, acceptance and space are hard to come by with the homeless suffering because of circumstances that they themselves are victims of.