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Delhi's flood of deaths that don't matter

The people who uncovered the fact liken it to "encountering a mass grave of people who do not matter" in India's seat of power: At least 10 homeless people are dying on the streets of Delhi every day, report Samar Halarnkar & Jatin Anand. Why they die | Full coverage

delhi Updated: Jun 01, 2010 02:43 IST

The people who uncovered the fact liken it to "encountering a mass grave of people who do not matter" in India's seat of power: At least 10 homeless people are dying on the streets of Delhi every day, the rate peaking as the summer rolls on.

After a six-month examination of official records at crematoria, police stations and graveyards across India's richest city, Smita Jacob and Asghar Sharif, analysts with an advisory body to the Supreme Court, found that 94 per cent of those who die are single, working men. The average age: 42 years.

Hindustan Times verified those records on the Delhi Police's meticulously-kept website, where the 12,413 deaths between January 2005 and December 2009 are listed as UIDBs (unidentified dead bodies).

All unclaimed bodies and deaths on streets, except those due to accidents, must be treated as possible starvation deaths unless proved otherwise, says a Supreme Court-appointed panel.

The deaths in Delhi indicate the depth of the challenge to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as it tries to expand and reform its agenda of "inclusive growth". The task is growing because a third of India's poor — predicted to grow to half, already more than any other country — are now in cities unprepared or unwilling to build support systems.

By 2030, 590 million people will live in Indian cities, said a recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

"That so many people, mostly working men, die each day at our doorsteps, close to the centres of power, is a reminder of how scarce compassion is in our public life," said Harsh Mander, Commissioner to the Supreme Court in a nine-year-long case that aims to make food a fundamental right.

Mander is now on the National Advisory Council created by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

He said the solutions are "simple": Shelters, affordable housing and hundreds of community kitchens. "But we aren't making these happen," said Mander.

Social welfare minister Mangat Ram Singhal said Delhi didn't have the resources to build shelters. From June 15, though, mobile centres will provide "quality food at reasonable rates" — Rs 1-15 in areas frequented by migrant labour.

"We have taken a lesson from Brazil; these mobile centres will use infrastructure from community kitchens, anganwadis (health centres), mid-day meal schemes," said Manoj Paridha, principal secretary, state social welfare ministry. "The poor won't need ration cards. They can just walk up to these vans."

Police data for the 60 months reveals an average of seven unidentified bodies a day. Analyst Jacob said the number is higher because not all people who die enter police records.

After examining the records for the first four months at Delhi's largest electric crematorium, Sarai Kale Khan, and the main Muslim burial grounds run by the Wakf Board, Jacob and Sharif found they averaged 306 bodies a month, or 10 daily.

"Using this premise, one may conclude that from May 2009 to April 2010… 92 per cent, i.e. 3,381 deaths could be directly or indirectly caused by starvation," said the report.

Even in relative terms, the number of homeless dying in Delhi is significant. India's average death rate, in 2010, is 7.6 per 1,000 people per year. Delhi's 16 million population means 333 people die here every day. The numbers thrown up by the study indicate 3 per cent of this number is made up of homeless working men in their 40s who die from hunger and disease.

Joint Commissioner of Police (northern range) Karnal Singh said the police see "a lot of dead bodies" on city streets but cause of death is investigated mainly where "criminality is established". He said it was "not within our purview" to probe deaths from the weather or hunger.

The report acknowledged lack of a detailed death analysis to provide a "sharp argument" for the starvation deaths; lack of hospital records; and data errors from a manual count of crematoria and Wakf Board records.

Mander said the actual count could be higher. He explained that in his years of working with Delhi's homeless, he has seen how they pool in their "meagre savings" to dispose of the bodies of friends. These deaths do not enter public records.

The report busts some myths about the homeless: that they are beggars and junkies; mostly the aged and destitute; that they are here temporarily; that most die in the winter.

"Homeless deaths actually peak during summers, then in the monsoons," said Jacob.

This emerged after the office of the SC commissioners began their investigation into deaths during the winter of 2009, one of the coldest on record in Delhi.

They found that many who died were young working people. Last winter, the government tried cutting back on shelters, which in any case aid no more than 3 per cent of the homeless.

After homeless people began to die on the site of a demolished shelter, the high court took suo-moto notice and summoned government officials.

Within two nights, the government doubled the number of shelters.

"In the commissioners' office, we wondered how many died every day on the streets? Is it a problem only of winters? Who are these people and why do they die?" asked Mander. Since the government kept no clear records, the investigation by Jacob and Sharif provided some answers — and more questions.

(Tracking Hunger is an HT initiative to investigate/report the struggle to rid India of hunger. You can read previous stories at

First Published: Jun 01, 2010 01:17 IST