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Leaving them out in the cold

An ad hoc policy towards the homeless has left them at the mercy of the elements.

india Updated: Jan 08, 2010 21:30 IST

In its eagerness to delight foreign guests, who are expected to come to the capital during the 12-day Commonwealth Games, Delhi is leaving no stone unturned. As a part of its beautification drive for the Games, the zealous officials of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) recently demolished a temporary shelter meant for 250 homeless people in central Delhi. The shelter was removed not just to make the area look more presentable but also because it was an “illegal encroachment” that led to “unsanitary conditions and traffic problems” in the area. Thankfully, the Delhi High Court stepped in and ordered the government to rebuild the centre. The MCD did follow the order to a T: it rebuilt the shelter, but even in this biting cold, it has no blankets, bedding and carpets. The helplessness of those who used this temporary shelter, a tent actually, can be gauged from the fact that even this half-hearted arrangement is being seen as a blessing. According to a conservative estimate, there are 1.5 lakh homeless people in Delhi and there are only 17 regular round shelters that run throughout the year. In the winter of 2009, the government and NGOs were running 47 shelters.

Chief Ministers of Indian metropolises have often talked about the pressure that our cities face from migrants and how they, in turn, put pressure on the civic amenities of cities likes Delhi and Mumbai. While much of this is correct, it is also true that migration is a reality and instead of seeing it as a constant headache, there must be some coherent policy on how to handle people who leave their homes to come to the cities and end up being homeless. The policy on these homeless people has been ad hoc and in Delhi, the number of shelters are increased only during the winter season. Life on the streets is harsh and dangerous for anyone, more so for women and children. Yet many parts of Delhi, like west Delhi, are still not covered even by this ad hoc policy.

Along with giving people the bare minimum of having a roof over their heads, the state has to make certain other interventions for these unfortunate people: healthcare services, livelihood opportunities and, more important, some sort of identification. A proper identification document will help them access government programmes. But, of course, let us not forget the suffering of these people left to the elements when we are in our warm and secure environs. Surely, they deserve a little more compassion.