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Cold, unfeeling city

india Updated: Jan 26, 2010 21:41 IST
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Each night, as temperatures continue to plunge and Delhi shivers through its coldest winter in the last decade, a few more people lose their lives on its streets. The people who succumb to the cold include rickshaw-pullers, balloon-sellers and casual workers, the footloose underclass of dispossessed people who build and service the capital city of the country and yet are forced to sleep under the open sky. They die because the national, state and local governments in Delhi refuse to make the very modest investments required to ensure decent shelter for each resident of the city.

These deaths are often reported as fatalities due to the ‘cold wave’, as though people are dying because of the unfortunate extremes of climate for which only nature is to blame. But as law scholar Usha Ramanathan points out, “When people die because they are exposed to the elements, it is not a natural death. It is death caused by neglect and reckless disregard of the responsibility of the State to protect the lives of the poor. It is as if the poor do not matter. As if they have to keep paying for their poverty, even with their lives.”

People die in the cold firstly because we do not plan our cities in ways that its working people are enabled to access affordable and decent housing, close to their work sites. In the absence of this, the least they need for basic survival are homeless shelters. The government runs night shelters in Delhi for less than 3 per cent of the homeless population. M. Tarique of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences recently surveyed all the shelters in Delhi, and reported that they lack the most elementary facilities of clean beddings, potable drinking water and functioning toilets — never mind food, livelihood, emotional and legal support services. There are no special shelters for homeless women, children or families, or recovery shelters for the homeless ailing, aged, destitute and mentally challenged.

Since 2001, the Delhi government and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) have erected tents in winter in open spaces, as temporary shelters for homeless people in winter. These are even more basic, with tattered tents, dirty beddings and no other facilities. But these tents still save lives. The numbers of tents were very small, and our demand was that several hundred of these come up every year. Instead, mysteriously, the government reduced the number of shelters this winter from 46 in 2008-09, which included 17 permanent shelters and 29 temporary ones, to 33 (17 permanent and 16 temporary shelters).

To make matters worse, one of these 16 temporary shelters was demolished by the MCD on one of the coldest winter nights.

The authorities claimed that they wanted to establish a park there. The tent would anyway have been removed by March, when flowers could have been planted, if indeed they wanted a park. At least two people have died at that very location since the temporary shelter was removed. In response to a petition by the Shahari Adhikar Manch, the Delhi High Court angrily directed government on January 12 to restore all the old temporary shelters, and to build at least 140 permanent shelters.

As activist Indu Prakash Singh points out, the Delhi Master Plan itself committed to one night shelter for every 100,000 people.

People also die in the cold because they do not have enough food. There is considerable scientific evidence that people succumb to bitter cold also because they are severely malnourished. A World Health Organisation report confirms that a “cold environment increases an individual’s energy expenditure — especially if shelter, clothing and/or heating are inadequate”. In other words, when it’s cold, people need more food even to maintain body temperatures. The need for nourishment becomes especially high for homeless people exposed to near-freezing temperatures with no walls and highly inadequate clothes, blankets and fuel. Studies have also shown that in winters, the limited money that homeless people earn is spent on keeping warm, resulting in a shift of expenditures away from food and other essentials.

Here once again, the record of the Delhi government has been dismal. The Supreme Court commissioners in the ‘Right to Food’ case directed the government to distribute Antyodaya ration cards to all homeless people, which would make them eligible for 35 kg of wheat at Rs 2 per kg every month. More than three years since the order, and a symbolic distribution of a few cards by the chief minister, officials have blocked the distribution of these ration cards. The Congress manifesto also importantly promises community kitchens that would supply balanced clean hot food at affordable prices to urban homeless people and migrants. The need is for half a million people to get such food daily in Delhi. But the government has only provided for supplying such food to little more than 1,000 people a day.

People die in the cold, finally, because governments have no comprehensive social security systems to protect the abandoned aged, women rendered homeless because of violence, and children without adult protection. They are all left to brave the cruel city streets without State support.

The government and middle class residents of Delhi aspire to transform it into a ‘world class city’. To be a ‘world class city,’ elementary compassion must first be restored to the centre of governance.

Harsh Mander is director, Centre for Equity Studies

The views expressed by the author are personal