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Are you warm enough?

For a place to treat its homeless they way it does, Delhi is one callous city. Namita Bhandare writes

india Updated: Dec 01, 2011 22:56 IST
Namita Bhandare

On a foggy winter afternoon early this week, I went looking for the invisible and found Bibi Ayesha, wheelchair-bound, lean, with a grin and optimism placed equally on her face. Bibi is telling me about home — her home in a makeshift tent with two rows of neatly made-up beds, one side for men, the other for women and children. She is telling me of how her real home, a jhuggi near Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was demolished in a ‘beautification’ drive before the Commonwealth Games. She has nowhere to go but here.

Ignored, invisible, Bibi is just one of Delhi’s 1.5 lakh homeless people who pop up on the city’s radar when winter sets in and it becomes impossible to continue to ignore those shivering under an open sky. Or else when there is a mishap and lives are lost. One day after a fire at a temporary shelter near the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara just over a week ago — the third such in the past year — left a nine-year-old girl dead, officials came rushing, bearing blankets and sweaters. But more than sweaters and blankets, the city’s homeless citizens need a permanent shelter, not ramshackle tents of plastic, tarpaulin and torn clothes. And certainly not hand-outs that pass for atonement by a callous city.

It’s a precarious existence. A vast majority of Delhi’s homeless are employed — on construction sites, setting up wedding pandals or as domestic workers. “I prefer to use the word ‘city-makers’,” says Indu Prakash Singh, an advisor with the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), an NGO that works with the city’s homeless. “They are the unsung builders of the nation but continue to live on the fringes.”

Despite a Supreme Court order, there is little on the ground. At Yamuna Pushta, on the banks of a filthy river, between 3,000-4,000 people, mainly men, find employment as daily wage-earners but sleep, defecate and bathe in the open. A few temporary shelters can take in a few, but drinking water is limited and sanitation absent.

Delhi has 64 permanent shelters for the homeless. Under the Master Plan that provides for one shelter for every 100,000 people, there should have been 150. It doesn’t require genius to solve the problem. Temples, gurdwaras and mosques can accommodate people at night. But these will not provide a permanent shelter. Unused or under-used government buildings will. There are 400 such buildings in Delhi, says Indu Prakash Singh. They remain unused.

“In Delhi, winters are meant to be enjoyed,” a senior bureaucrat once told Singh. Perhaps the biggest problem the homeless face is an appalling lack of sensitivity. People can be generous with charity — blankets and hot food, for instance — but are less forthcoming with compassion. Shelters are fine, but the attitude is: not in my backyard. Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) have created self-enclosed gated communities shut to those who don’t belong. In December 2010, the RWA at Hanuman Mandir objected to a temporary shelter that came up in a park near the mandir. When inducements of sweaters and meals failed, the RWA approached the high court saying the temporary shelter was a ‘nuisance’. The matter now comes up for hearing in January.

Few, if any, are homeless by choice. At an old baraat ghar (community centre) in Karol Bagh, the city’s only permanent shelter for women and children, I met old women who had been abandoned by their families and young mothers who had walked out of abusive relationships. All the young mothers I met had jobs. All the children were enrolled in schools.

These are largely untold stories of a big city. Yet, a great city becomes great not just because of its grand buildings, infrastructure or cultural offerings. A great city can be great only if it is inclusive to all the people who live in it, those with homes and those without. When a part of Delhi’s population remains shut out of public consciousness, can we really say that about the capital of emerging India?

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer

The views expressed by the author are personal