Sunday, November 14, 2010

Out. Cold

I've been missing Delhi quite a bit these days. Missing the warm sweet potato-n-lime snack sold on leaf-plates. Missing the mysterious mornings when you feel as if all the misty apprehension we carry within our souls had somehow been scooped out and set loose upon the streets. I miss missing heaters. I miss my teeth chattering. I miss monkey caps. I miss rubbing my hands together and feeling the wind cut a rivulet across my eyes as I returned from work in an auto.

Winter makes all of us who have lived north of Mumbai nostalgic. For the fog. For the chill. For 'heaty' snacks. For good gajak and warm naankhatai and smoking little fires on each street. For mufflers on faces. For electricity in hair.

But then, I'm just a northerner in the sense that I'm north of Mumbai. I do not miss places where water freezes in taps and all hotels and restaurants shut down for four long months. I am not from places where schools have a very long winter break instead of a proper summer vacation. I'm not from the hills and certainly not from Leh or Ladakh.

I've travelled quite high in the hills in November but that was in a good year. A year where people had homes, even if the freezing water made pipelines burst. A year unlike this one, where people are living in tents.

I cannot quite imagine how, even though a friend has sent photographs of the way people are still living, post Cloudburst in August this year. He sent back a link to some photos, with a simple message in October: 'Please help them'.

I saw the photos and kept thinking, but this is September. The smiling faces of mothers and children - what do they look like right now? What's happening right now in Leh?

I wish the mainstream media was telling me more about how the state is handling the housing and clothing situation in areas affected by Cloudburst. I hope things are under control, but having seen how bad things can be in Delhi, I wonder if there is any reason to be so optimistic.

If there was one thing I did not like about a Delhi winter, it was the sight of homeless people out at night. It made the city heartbreaking, shocking and frightening. I was shocked and outraged the first winter I spent living alone in an unheated room in Delhi. Some nights were so cold I couldn't sleep. And then I'd see the rickshaw-pullers, curled up under a thin blanket, on a less-than-three-foot long seat.

I'd read snippets in the papers, of course - inside pages, single column, maybe two inches worth of news - about so many dozens dying in 'cold waves'. Such items appear regularly in newspapers in north-Indian cities. Each summer, there's a 'heat wave' and each winter, a 'cold wave' that rises up and snatches away a few dozen people. The papers rarely mention that these people were homeless, or that they possibly provided cheap, essential services to the city, such as transportation or public hygiene. There isn't enough room and anyway, it is understood. Why would anyone die of the cold if they weren't too poor to be able to deal with it?

It made me do one of my first stories for Frontline (appended below) in 2004. It also led me to visit a 'raen basera', an impossibly romantic Urdu word that describes an impossibly inadequate service to deal with this kind of crisis - homelessness in a Delhi winter. Sad, smelly and ill-equipped though the night shelters are, they're there.

With the massive migrant/refugee influx into most (state) capital cities, it is time India began to invest a little more time and money in creating more night shelters. They are as important as hospitals and serve the same purpose - they save lives.

"As the icy fingers of winter send deathly chills down Delhi’s spine, people have begun to hug themselves tight, as if their clothes were a good-luck charm offered by destiny. But for tens of thousands - perhaps hundreds of thousands - of homeless people out on the streets of the national capital, there is no good luck charm and if they had a destiny, they’d gladly set fire to it to warm themselves.

Over the years, Delhi’s population has gone up, and with it, the numbers braving the fatal north-Indian winter. Cold waves are an annual feature, as are the dead bodies found in the foggy morning.

According to media reports, in 2002, beat constables found 3,040 corpses during the winter. Of these, no less than 400 had died in a cold wave.

However, as far as the establishment is concerned, the winter threat to the shelterless isn’t worthy of a long-term policy or plan. The government has done precious little to build a comprehensive policy for urban homelessness, or even conducted a proper census.

Paramjeet Kaur, director of AAA (Aashray Adhikaar Abhiyaan), an NGO focusing on housing rights, says, "According to our survey in 2000, there were 52,765 people out on the streets. But we missed at least half. Currently, 12 shelters are run by MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi). 10 of these are only night shelters, and about 2,500 people can be accommodated. All of them are pay-and-use, with Rs 6 for 12 hours’ occupancy."

Last year, about 70 deaths were attributed to winter, a marked improvement over previous years. This was possible because a network of NGOs was working in collusion with the municipal corporations of Delhi (old delhi) and New Delhi. Religious institutions like Sacred Hearts Cathedral and Bangla Sahib, and educational institutions like Zakir Hussain College and Zeenat Mahal School, besides a few municipal schools, opened up their doors despite the extra load on water and sewage facilities.

According to a report based on the consultation ‘Space for the Homeless and Marginalised in Delhi’, organized by Action Aid India and the Slum and Resettlement Wing of the MCD in July 2003, the total homeless population in India is no less than 78 million (based on the 2001 census). The report says, "This problem was more acute in the three metros, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, which put together were reported to have 78% of the houseless population."

Even the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) admits that at least 1% of the population is homeless. This means that no less than 140,000 shelterless people. Incidentally, this figure does not include those who sleep in carts, rickshaws, or under flimsy plastic-sheet roofs. Compare this to the fact that Delhi’s night shelters cater to only about 2,500 people, and one wonders what the government supposes the rest should do during the harsh Delhi winter.

Lalit Batra of the Hazard Centre, another NGO working for housing rights told us, "At least 1 lakh jhuggis (slums) have been demolished since 2000. In Yumuna-Pushta alone, we estimate that roughly 30-50,000 have been rendered homeless. Only 30,000 were rehabilitated. The trend is that only 25% get accommodation after evictions. There is no way but for homelessness to rise."

The paradox is that the state does not seem to be making use of the resources that are available. In September 2004, there was a conference of ministers of housing from all the states and union territories, organised by the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation. According to the agenda report: "it is the ultimate goal of the National Policy on Housing and Habitat, 1998, to provide the basic need of shelter for all, but until such objective is achieved, it is necessary to provide some kind of shelter to the absolutely shelterless urban poor, particularly street children, destitute women and migrant labourers etc."

In keeping with this commitment, the scheme of night shelters for the urban homeless was introduced in 1988-89. According to the government, the scheme was supposed to progress as per demand. This means that the states would put forward proposals, which would then be sanctioned by HUDCO. By July 2004, HUDCO had sanctioned 99 night shelters across India. Maharashtra, which faces one of the worst situations of urban homelessness, has been sanctioned 40 shelters. Delhi has been sanctioned zero.

Also, under the scheme of ‘shelter and sanitation facilities for footpath dwellers in urban areas’, Delhi had been sanctioned zero, as of March 31, 2000. Almost every other state (including a much-maligned Bihar) has a better record of putting forward proposals for the urban homeless, which were accepted.

According to the same report, the National Slum Development Programme has sanctioned Rs 14,053 lakhs to Delhi between 2000-04, of which the entire amount has been listed as ‘unspent balance’. In short, Delhi has the money. It is not being used.

Women and children, the most vulnerable groups out on the streets, have practically nowhere to go. The only shelter within New Delhi limits has also been taken away. Palika Ashray Grih was a shelter that catered specifically to women, and was run by AAA. But the shelter was taken away by the NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) just before the onset of winter, rendering the inhabitants homeless again.

Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, UN Commission on Human Rights, agrees that the government has no definite policy on housing in Delhi. "Historically, we have a grave crisis of housing. Every time the municipality demolishes slums, the vast majority are rendered homeless. We believe this is a violation of human rights. During the recent brutal eviction of women from Palika hostel, there were several human rights violations."

Palika Hostel was the first initiative by the NDMC towards a women’s shelter. On October 16, 2004, the women and children were forcibly evicted, many of them sustaining injuries during the whole procedure.

The women set up tents right outside the building and continue to sit there on a relay hunger strike. However, on November 5, NDMC officials pulled out the tent poles even as women and children were sleeping inside. The AAA team intervened and has since met the Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, sent telegrams to the Prime Minister’s Office, contacted the National Commission for women and complained to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). The NDMC and the chief minister’s office directed that the women be shifted to Nirmal Chhaya, a home for destitute women. But the women refuse to move because the complex is often mistaken for a detention centre and is even known in common parlance as the ‘women’s prison’, being situated next to Tihar Jail. Besides, it is a short-stay home and has no provision for housing women over 45 years of age.

Officialdom, meanwhile, does its pass-the-buck trick. Frontline spoke to various departments, all of which claim that the problem is not theirs. According to Nisha Agarwal of the Slum and Juvenile Justice wing of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi), "We have 24 children’s homes. The primary job is to look for the street children’s original home and families. They are brought to us through the police, concerned citizens and NGOs etc. Night shelters are not our mandate. That is MCD’s baby."

She added that night shelters are part of the poverty alleviation scheme of the government. "There are 17 or 18 night shelters maybe. They open up another 17 or so during winters. Last year, we helped MCD cope with the severe winter. We helped monitor the shelters but we don’t really have the budgets or the staff to cope."

Madan Thapaliyal of the NDMC told us, "We are not equipped to run shelters for the homeless population. We don’t have the infrastructure to cope. From December 15 onwards, we will give some extra night shelters. We make arrangements on the requirement of the central government. The responsibility belongs to the state’s welfare department."

Jitendra Narain, Director of the department of social welfare explains that, in a letter to UK Vohra, Secretary, NDMC, he had mentioned that though Nirmal Chhaya was available to the former residents of Palika Hostel, the timing was incorrect for proposing to shift them, with winter being round the corner.

Rashmi Singh, joint director in the department of social welfare, says that the right place to go and ask questions would be the urban development ministry. "We will not shrug off responsibility, because anything to do with social welfare is our business. The census doesn’t even give us the right figures. The secretary of this department had estimated 10,000 homeless people for Delhi. Yet, there is no formal survey." She clarified that the problem has to be tackled through a collective effort. "MCD has 17 night shelters and 7 converted community centres during winters. The development commissioner’s office sets up temporary camps. We have one short stay home for women, Nirmal Chhaya. YWCA has some facilities and there’s Bapno Ghar for women. NDMC has old age homes. Some NGOs are supported by us, round the year. But we cannot usurp the government’s role and mandate for urban homelessness. The Urban development ministry is the nodal body."

Miloon Kothari believes that although "nobody takes responsibility for the poor, but from a legal perspective, according to the NDMC Act of 1994, the NDMC is responsible. Any municipality of the world has to take up responsibility."

Ultimately, help had to come from non-government quarters. Paramjeet Kaur believes that unless more NGO’s, volunteers and civic organisations come forward, this year will be difficult. "Last year was a big achievement for us. We managed 43 shelters, 23 of them temporary and 20 buildings. We had support from MCD’s mobile health unit. How this winter turns out depends on how many volunteers come forward. It is not an easy task managing thousands of lives round the clock, especially those who have health problems. In winter, chronic diseases get aggravated. Every night, we’re on the vigil. Electricity and water is required. Blankets and bedding have to be washed. AAA is also trying to get them (homeless people) organised. We have helped the elderly form a group called Varishtha Nagrik Sangh. They have applied for old age pension and will now apply for ration cards. We run a food and health care program. They are issued ID cards and can stay free."

Kaur adds that the solution is not hard to find. "The state government needs to open up spaces. NDMC has only one shelter at Nizamuddin. You can’t bar certain zones. Delhi has the infrastructure. We only need to make multipurpose use of existing government buildings. Spaces over parking lots are available. Community centre buildings and Baarat Ghars can be used. We have shown MCD and NDMC that this isn’t a wasteful venture. After years, MCD actually made a profit in the year when we ran five community centres as night shelters!"

Among other things, they demand that the official recognition of winter’s duration be increased. MCD and NDMC make arrangements only after December 15. Since winter sets in earlier in Delhi, the government, they argue, should extend facilities from mid-November until Holi. Most activists agree that the homeless have no voice since they do not have votes. They are trying to rectify that by issuing ID cards and helping the homeless to vote.

This year’s general elections saw 500 homeless people on the electoral rolls, of which about 150 voted. They look forward to the day when the shelterless people of this country - all 78 million and more - get organised into a formidable vote bank. The government will have no option but to sit up and take note.

[A slightlyedited version of the story appeared in Frontline magazine in Jan 2005]

1 comment:

Sudeep said...

Also see this report on IBN live: A lakh homeless spend winter on Delhi streets.

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