February 02, 2005

Home Truths: Providing Shelter to Millions on the Street (Bharat Dogra)

The Times of India,
February 2, 2005


by Bharat Dogra

No one remembers them during grand occasions like Republic Day. They are the homeless — people stretched on footpaths under torn blankets or less, on remorselessly cold and foggy nights. Discussions on improving urban infrastructure altogether negate their existence. Perhaps, their only consolation under this framework is to eke out a space below the flyovers littering the city landscape. They are taken note of only as undesirable elements that need to be weeded out of the city in order to improve its 'social infrastructure'. The Emergency happened only 30 years back, but today a Turkman Gate happens virtually each day all over the country without a murmur of disapproval. Have we really evolved as a strong, proud Republic?

Ironically, the callous neglect is visible in the very city that hosts the Republic Day parade. Despite the recent emphasis on poverty alleviation schemes, the existing night shelters in Delhi accommodate less than 5% of the city's 1,00,000 homeless, or 3,000 people. If the homeless go through hell in winter in Delhi, they face high water in the monsoon in Mumbai. The situation in smaller towns, away from public and policy focus, can well be imagined. It is an indication of the extent to which the urban homeless have been ignored that reliable estimates of their number are just not available. Census estimates have left out a big chunk of the homeless as they can only be contacted at night and not very easily.

Sporadic estimates suggest that the number of homeless is not less than three million, or about 1% of the urban population. The figures will rise if we include those who are precariously housed, or on the margin of homelessness. Some people are 'resettled' so far away from their place of work that they prefer to sleep in the open near the worksite despite the existence of a house or hut miles away. Shouldn't we consider them homeless?

Several studies have shown that it makes sense for the government to provide housing sites and basic services close to the place of livelihood. If only a few dwellings pose a problem — for example, to make way for a road or a drain — organisations of slum dwellers can help to find an alternative site nearby for these few. This was demons-trated by the Asha Abhiyan project in Bilaspur (Chhattisgarh).

Notwithstanding these facts, nearly three lakh people have been rendered homeless by a slum demolition drive in Mumbai in recent weeks. Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh stands committed to changing the face of Mumbai, no matter what the human cost.

A two-pronged approach is needed to provide shelter on a large scale. The programme of creating night shelters should be stepped up significantly. Appeals should be made to make available buildings that are unused at night, so that these can provide shelter to the homeless, particularly in extremely cold weather. Such buildings can include religious and philanthropic places, schools and colleges. A means would have to be devised to link the organisations and people willing to donate space to those who actually need it. Voluntary organisations and citizens' groups can play an important role in establishing this link and ensuring that the homeless enter and leave buildings in an orderly way so that their day-use is not disturbed.

Ordinary citizens can play a more positive role. Their concerns at present only find limited expression — such as donation of an occasional blanket — due to lack of avenues to reach out to the homeless. However, if organisations dedicated to meeting many-faceted needs of the homeless emerge, these can facilitate a much more broad-based participation of citizens.

The Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan in Delhi has made an effort in this direction. It engages people in the needs of the homeless and provides spaces for them to link up with welfare activities. Many students have offered their voluntary services; some educational institutions have allowed their premises to be used as shelters at night; and commercial establishments as well as individuals have come up with job and training offers.

A move is afoot in Delhi and Chennai to provide the homeless with a voters' identity card. This would empower the unfortunate lakhs in their interactions with hafta -hungry policemen and hospital staff, while also bringing them into the reckoning when the government announces welfare measures.

The Tenth Plan document refers to according voluntary organisations a greater role in managing night shelters. The document emphasises building night shelters for women and children, who have suffered glaring neglect in the past.

Night shelter programmes should learn from earlier mistakes. The low occupancy at night shelters is explained not only by the unhygienic conditions, but also by the fact that the needs of special occupational groups are often overlooked. Rickshaw and cart-pullers need a place to keep their cycles and carts — their means of livelihood — securely before they can sleep peacefully in a shelter. Hence, a close interaction with the target group is needed so that the funds are well spent. Along with an increase in the budget for night shelters, greater transparency in funds use will go a long way in ensuring the best results. In sum, it makes more sense to provide for the homeless than to pursue policies which increase their number in the name of beautification and infrastructure creation. Only then can we say Saare jahan se achcha .