It is that time of year once again, when icy winds sweep north India. People spend as much time indoors as possible, under blankets and, if they can afford it, in the glow of electric heaters. Outside, damp cold smog gloomily envelops most urban spaces.
It is also the time when people with no homes brace themselves to survive another cruel winter. These are men who pick rags, build homes or pull rickshaws, and save every rupee to support their desperately poor families back in the village. There are women thrown out on to the streets from violent homes. There are children who escape alcoholic fathers and fearsome abuse in their families by fending for themselves on city pavements. There are the aged, the mentally ill, the disabled and the mortally ill, who have no family or community to fall back upon, and no roof except the open sky.
Few city governments run homeless shelters, and older humanitarian social traditions of opening the doors of places of worship for the homeless and destitute have been abandoned by all major faiths. The homeless instead gather each long foggy winter night around fires kept alive with dry shrubs, twigs and toxic plastic waste. Some are able to hire blankets from rapacious street entrepreneurs; others wait for the rare person of mercy who distributes free blankets on wintry nights. Some inhale drugs that transport them far from the realities of their harsh world. Children snuggle against each other and with stray dogs under thin sheets, sharing body warmth and caring.
Each chilly night leaves a trail of dead bodies of homeless men, women and children. The Delhi police have coined a term for them: ‘beggar type’. This signifies people who do not matter, whose frozen corpses do not merit even a customary post-mortem or inquiry into the causes of their death.
Governments are convinced that they have no duties to urban poor residents: their duties are only against them, to demolish their shelters, debar them from public spaces, and drive them away. The homeless, therefore, must fend for themselves, in whatever way they can, or succumb. Our research shows that homeless people are at least five times more likely to die than people who live in homes, not just in winter but around the year.
This began to change a little last winter (2009-10). The flashpoint was when the Delhi government pulled down one of the few shelters it provided, and a young balloon seller died. We wrote a letter to the Supreme Court, demanding that 24-hour permanent shelters should be the minimal right of every homeless person. Courts often share the hostility of governments to the most dispossessed urban residents, ordering or condoning demolitions of slums, and the incarceration of beggars. However, this was one case which the judges took to heart. The bench ordered the government to organise more shelters overnight, and in just two days the government set up and equipped more homeless shelters than it had in all the years since Independence. The numbers have grown further this winter. We then wrote to the court that this was not a problem only of Delhi, but other cities too, and not a challenge only of winter but of every season. Our research has revealed that more homeless people die in the hottest summer months than in winter.
The court then directed all states to erect in all major cities, permanent shelters in sufficient numbers for the homeless, well-equipped with clean water, sanitation, nutritious food outlets and health services. There was initial confusion in most states on how to even process and respond to these directions, because most did not even have any department charged with serving the urban homeless. Some governments were recalcitrant, like Maharashtra, which claimed that it could not spare land in Mumbai for any homeless shelter. Gujarat said it would be able to provide homeless shelters only by 2021! Bihar (a state from where we find the largest numbers of homeless people in the country’s capital) replied on affidavit to the court that providing food to the homeless would lead to stampedes and deaths! The judges sternly directed these governments to take a more humane view.
There were other state governments, like Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, which were far more positive in assuring the court that its orders would be obeyed. A full year later, very few homeless shelters have been commissioned by any of these governments. But at least some plans are under way.
It is a commentary on the times we live in, that in all these decades as a free nation, before the court chose at last to crack the whip, no government has found it fit to build services to protect the homeless from the climate, abuse and violence. It’s not charity for the homeless that we seek. Safe and hygienic permanent shelters are only the bare minimum to enable the poorest homeless residents to survive with basic dignity. We need to plan our cities in ways that enable all who live and work in them to secure affordable decent housing, to decriminalise their livelihoods, secure them fair wages, and social security for the aged and destitute. Cities belong equally to all who come to it to improve their fortunes — those with means, as much as the dispossessed rejects and outcasts of our cities.
(Harsh Mander is Director, Centre for Equity Studies)
*The views expressed by the author are personal