Sleepless Streets

The situation can only get worse in the coming days with even Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit admitting there would be 30 lakh more homeless on Delhi streets post-CWG.
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

Picture this: standing wrapped in a plastic sheet, a man tries to sleep under a flyover in the rains - no roof over his head and without the comfort of a bed. Forced to sleep beneath an open sky, the monsoons remind Delhi's 1.5 lakh-plus homeless of their poverty and unwantedness in this city of despair.

Where did the homeless come from? Many were forced out of their native places in the vast, impoverished Indian countryside by the lack of viable livelihood opportunities. There are also the elderly who have been abandoned by their families. More than 25,000 are women, including a sizeable number of young girls. The homeless also include many who are mentally challenged, destitute or disabled.

"This flyover has always been my home," says Sajan, a cobbler in the posh New Friends Colony market. He earns Rs 80-100 a day and lives next to the railway line under the Modi Mill flyover. This has been his "home" for at least 20 years now. Ever since his brother's death a few years ago, Sajan has been the sole breadwinner for a family of 10.

"Rains are welcome for the respite they bring from this scorching heat. Till then, even at night you cannot rest your head on the ground as it absorbs heat during the day and radiates it through the night," he says.

But rains bring their own set of problems. For people like Sajan, there is no respite from the incessant struggle for survival. He narrates how they change places when it drizzles, moving from one corner of the flyover to the other, depending on the direction of the rain.

Sometimes the homeless turn to heritage sites in a desperate search for shelter. "I move to Barah Gumbad, a heritage site near the Nizamuddin shrine, if it rains during the night," says Abdul as he gets ready to sleep in a park. When it rains, the damp soil would make it impossible to sleep. "I cannot afford to get my only pair of clothes drenched," he adds. 

With inflation touching the double-digit mark, finding something to eat is tough in any season. For the homeless, rains make the struggle even more difficult. "Cooking our own food becomes a big hassle as the firewood gets damp," says Sajan.

Moreover, analysts from an advisory body to the Supreme Court pointed out recently that 10 homeless people die every day of hunger or diseases in the capital - five times the national average. Most of these deaths occur in summer, followed by deaths during the monsoons. Many succumb to water-borne diseases, their bodies weakened by poor nutrition and their chances of survival minimised by lack of access to healthcare.

Delhi Police records show 12,413 deaths of 'unidentified' persons between January 2005 and December 2009. Unlike most other city-dwellers, the homeless have no proof of identity, ration cards, voter-ID cards, driving license etc. Experts believe that even the 2001 census of the homeless was a farce.

Indeed, the government does not seem to care. "We do not have any special provisions for the homeless during monsoons," says MCD spokesperson Deep Mathur, "We only provide additional arrangements during winters." In fact, MCD had ordered the demolition of night shelters in January 2010 as part of the beautification drive going on for the CWG.

"MCD had a budget of just Rs 60 lakh for the homeless in 2009-10. Contrast this with the several hundred crores they have spent on beautification and street-scaping," says Shivani Choudhary of Housing and Lands Rights Network, an NGO. 

Hardnews visited one of the permanent shelters run by the MCD in Nizamuddin Basti and found that people prefer to sleep outside. "The shelter is extremely unclean and the official in charge does not allow us to use water for washing clothes. We are also denied the comfort of the desert cooler that the government has provided," says Jabbar. 

The condition of the NDMC shelters is worse. It used to run a shelter for homeless women in Sarojini Nagar. The Delhi High Court was petitioned in January 2010 to turn it into a family night shelter. But the NDMC still did not allow the inmates to cook. Another plea was made in the court to allow cooking. This time the NDMC decided to shut down the shelter and use the building to set up a school.
"The NDMC Act, 1994, gives the organisation a mandate to work for the underprivileged. So why did it do this when there are 11 schools in the vicinity with more seats than students?" asks Indu Prakash Singh of Indo-Global Social Service Society.

"We do have a shortage of space and the Sarojini Nagar shelter was anyway a temporary arrangement," says NDMC spokesperson Anand Tewari. The situation can only get worse in the coming days with even Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit admitting there would be 30 lakh more homeless on Delhi streets post-CWG.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

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I have been reading stories

I have been following all the stories on Commonwealth Games and found that all the articles lead to the same direction. I don’t understand the point of criticising Commonwealth games and top officials of the Organising Committee. You have blamed the government with facts which are baseless and false.
Stella.