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Left in the Cold

Scores of homeless street dwellers of Delhi have no one to look to as winter sets in and chill poses a threat to their life, write Junaid Kathju and Amresh Srivastava

Junaid Kathju / Amresh Srivastava
Publish Date: Nov 30 2015 2:11PM | Updated Date: Nov 30 2015 5:50PM

Left in the Coldphoto by hrishikesh bhatt

Everyday thousands of devotees visit the mausoleum of famous Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in South Delhi to pay obeisance and seek blessings for a better life and fulfillment of their wishes. Yet, for a 20-year-old woman, living under a flyover, near the shrine, luck seems to have run out for ever.


A widow with a three-year-old daughter to look after, she puts up on the pavement and spends her day begging for last seven years. Her husband, a poor rickshaw puller, fell ill over three-and-half years ago and died for want of medical aid and attention. This was seven month before their poor daughter was born.  


However, her agony did not end there; soon Noor (name changed to protect identity) came to know that she and her child were HIV positive. Now both receive medicines to keep body and soul together from Government-run Kalavati Hospital. 


In search of better livelihood, Noor’s parents had once migrated from neighbouring Haryana to Delhi but like so many other migrants, the family had nowhere to go and, thus, ended up living on streets ever since.


As per the official data with Delhi Government there are nearly 150,000 homeless people in Delhi, of which only 8,345 get shelter at Government-run homes or night shelters called Rain Baseras.


Most of them spend their day doing odd jobs, or begging on streets. As for Noor, she lives with her ailing parents and a physically challenged brother. For them the fast approaching winter chill brings dread. Fear lurks in her eyes as she says, “survival is a task every night through the winters.” 


The latest Union Home Ministry figures reveal that since 2004 no less than 33,000 homeless people have perished in the national capital due to various reasons. The dearth of night shelters has aggravated the problem of survival for the street dwellers as the more Government tries to augment space and the number of beds in night shelters, the more turn out to be the numbers of homeless who deserve to be accommodated in the shelters. 


According to the data released by the zonal integrated police network under the Union Home Ministry, 33,518 homeless people died in Delhi between January 2004 and October 2015.


Medical experts believe that most of homeless die due to communicable diseases, lack of hygiene and malnutrition caused by a lack of basic dietary intake.


As per the Master Plan for Delhi, nearly 19,37,520 square feet of space is required in the national capital to provide shelter for its homeless. And against this huge requirement, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), which runs the shelters across the city, has only 2,44,507 square feet of space available as of now. 


Aam Adami Party (AAP) MLA and member of DUSIB, Akhileshpati Tripathi, told Policy Pulse that even though they are trying to improve the situation, it is difficult to make the permanent structure for homeless. 


“Due to space constraints, it is a difficult to accommodate all the homeless people. Shifting them to the far off areas is also not possible as most of these people live near the place which can provide them work or get alms through begging,” Tripathi said.


During the 2010 Commonwealth Games the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) destroyed many temporary shelters to spruce up the city. Evacuation of the inmates from the shelters forced them to the outskirts of the city. Many of them soon ended up on crowded streets.


Noor remembers that earlier she lived in an open space near the school for visually challenged which lies across the road. There she felt home. She says that was a better place to live in as she did not fear over there to be run over by speeding vehicles as is the case now. She landed up at the flyover to protect her and the child from elements after police shooed her away from that space near the school.  


Even though the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, a nodal agency of the State Government, has established 231 night shelters which are being operated by various NGOs many of the homeless people prefer to keep away from the night shelters because of poor infrastructure.


“The night shelters are in very bad shape and poor hygienic conditions, the arrangement of drinking water and toilets are far from being adequate,” said Sohana, an elderly woman, who shares the pavement with Noor and her family. 


“Moreover there is a constant fear of theft in Rain Baseras. Even though I am afraid of being crushed by a speeding vehicle some night, I prefer this place” she added with a wry smile on her face.


However, this time around when winter is setting in, Tripathi said the officers of DUSIB would visit these night shelters twice a week to make sure that everything is in order. 


He further said NGOs are being paid by DUSIB to provide three caretakers and as many helpers round the clock to operate these night shelters.


“We have also set up a control room called Homeless Resource Centre to redress  grievances and improve conditions. Apart from that we have appealed to general public through newspapers in Hindi and in English to help us locate people sleeping in the open and move them to nearest night shelters,” he added.


Smelling an opportunity in the insufficient arrangements for scores of people looking for shelter during nights and Delhi Government’s inability to provide this some contractors have started renting out rugs and quilts to homeless people for Rs 10 to 20 a night. 


Even though many of the homeless people yearn to move to safer abodes but without any proof of identity, or documents to back antecedents nobody is willing to take them in even on rent. 


“Many of us earn enough to afford a rented shelter but we don’t have documents or, ID proof. So we are forced to live in conditions like hell,” rues Dilip Chaudhary, a native of Saharsa district in far off Bihar. He lives under the Yamuna Bazar flyover near Kashmiri Gate.


If this was not enough, Chaudhary said they are often harassed by the local police. This is more so when thefts or crimes occur in the vicinity. 


Around 1,500 people live under the Yamuna Bazaar flyover alone. Most of them are poor migrants without any documents to support their status as poor, deserving and needy citizens. 


After the intervention of Supreme Court and the Election Commission of India some voter ID cards were issued to homeless people. About a few hundred shelter-less people had, thus, benefitted with the card that is taken as a proof of identity also just before the last Delhi Assembly elections held in February this year.


As no such luck came the way of many more, the question that arises is how far the powers-that-be are ready to recognise, honour and uphold the basic right to shelter of scores of homeless people languishing on streets of Delhi in a winter that poses a grave threat to their life.