Not counted

Published : Oct 22, 2010 00:00 IST

HOMELESS PEOPLE ON a pavement at Yamuna Pushta on the bank of the river Yamuna in Delhi.-PICTURES: RAJEEV BHATT

HOMELESS PEOPLE ON a pavement at Yamuna Pushta on the bank of the river Yamuna in Delhi.-PICTURES: RAJEEV BHATT

Delhi NGOs initiate a process to survey the city's homeless people and reach welfare schemes to them.

IN the narrow lanes of Khari Baoli, Asia's largest wholesale spice and grocery market in the crowded Old Delhi area near the Red Fort, labourers grapple with heavy sacks of grain, pulses, and so on as they load them on to wooden trolleys or unload them from trucks. There is no room for other vehicles or even pedestrians in this chaotic commercial area of the National Capital Region. But this hustle and bustle is the mainstay of homeless people like Rajesh Mahato.

Clad only in torn shorts, Mahato seemed to be happy about the traffic jam. Dhakka maarna kaam hai saheb. Yeh bheed nahin hoti toh yeh kaam bhi nahin milta (Pushing carts is my job. If not for this jostling crowd, I would not have had even this job), he says perkily as he competes with the truck drivers to push a grain cart through a lane.

For the past 30 years, this permanent resident of a Delhi footpath has been waking up every morning in anticipation of a traffic jam. He is paid somewhere between Rs.2 and Rs.5 for pushing a cart up an incline or to pull it out of a snarl.

Mahato is not married and cares little for social norms. I have never had a family, nor do I have permanent friends. I came to this area as a small kid, without any clothes. I don't even know what my age is. Occupying my place on the footpath for as long as possible has been my primary concern, he says.

On Sundays, when the Kari Baoli market are closed, homeless people like him run their own spice market in the nearby Sadar Bazaar. Load hand during the week and spice merchant on Sundays? Simple. Mahato explains: We pick up the spices and grain that fall from the trucks during transportation or are leftovers unfit to be sold. We clean them through the week and sell them on Sundays.

With the growing economy centred on metropolitan towns, the populations of homeless people have seen a steady increase. Delhi is not an exception. However, the increasing number of flyovers has come as a boon to them. Most importantly, they provide a roof over their heads in the night. During the day, these labourers wait at the ends of the flyovers so that they can help push a trolley up the incline.

There is a myth about the homeless people that they are mostly migrant workers who come in search of work only during the agricultural off-season. Indu Prakash of the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with the homeless people, dismisses this. Most of the homeless people have been staying in Delhi for a long time. Some were even born on the footpath. The government has always turned a blind eye to them.

Census figures show that there were 24,966 homeless people in Delhi in 2001. But that figure, activists say, is grossly under-reported. A head count in 2000 by the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, an organisation working for housing rights, put their number at 52,765. In fact, the Abhiyan survey did not even cover the whole of Delhi. In 2008, the IGSSS, in an incomplete survey, pegged the number at 88,410 and estimated that about 150,000 homeless people lived permanently in Delhi.

The homeless constitute men in the dhakka business, small-time construction workers, ragpickers and workers in small eateries. Around 20 per cent of them are beggars who can be arrested under the Prevention of Beggary Act ( Frontline, July 2, 2010). A large number of these people are mentally unstable. A section of slum-dwellers have also been rendered homeless because of the slum demolition drive and shoddy rehabilitation. Almost all the homeless people are without families. Some of them even do not know their origins and have never seen their parents.

There is a big concentration of homeless people in Old Delhi, Yamuna Pushta, Central Shahdara and Connaught Place. Seventy per cent of these people hail from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.

For these people, the idea of nation means nothing. They constitute a population for whom the legality/illegality debate too has no meaning. Their social psyche is completely different from that of the rest of society. Identities like gender, caste and religion are amorphous and are rendered irrelevant in their case. For us India means nothing. Ours is a daily struggle to make ends meet. The policemen often come to drive us away whenever there is monitoring from the top. Or else they let us stay on the roads, says Mohammed Qayyum, who stays under a tree near G.B. Road, the biggest red-light area of the city.

Dhir Singh and a few others have also been staying near G.B. Road for the past 30 years, and yet, they are considered outcasts even by the sex workers and pimps. We are not allowed into the road. People recognise us because we have been staying here for a long time. We have been insulted many times by the pimps for even looking at the sex workers, Dhir Singh says.

The condition of those without a home is the most visible form of urban poverty. The lack of attention paid to these people is primarily the result of bureaucratic insouciance. Indu Prakash says: If there is one agency that could be responsible for the plight of the homeless, it is the bureaucracy. The Indian state has to provide adequate housing and create employment opportunities for the not so privileged. Every time we start a campaign, the biggest blow to our movement comes from the bureaucracy. At a meeting last November, when we were trying to provide some immunity to the homeless, or citymakers', as we call them, from the severe chill, the Revenue Secretary, to our surprise, said that Delhi did not have severe winters. The New Delhi Municipal Council [NDMC] is the most insensitive body.

The IGSSS and other such organisations run shelters for the homeless. According to the NDMC Act, 1994, the municipal authorities have the responsibility to take care of the homeless.

According to the Delhi Master Plan, there has to be one night shelter per one lakh people. This means Delhi should have 180 shelters. However, out of the 64 shelters the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) claims to run, only 17 are permanent and functioning. The NDMC does not run even a single shelter in its jurisdiction. Moreover, the government shelters lack adequate facilities and are often overcrowded.

In this situation, a peculiar bed-and-blanket business has been flourishing. Some contractors provide blankets and beds for Rs.20 a night to the homeless people. The blankets and mattresses are hardly washed. This prompted NGOs to demand that buildings, schools and parking lots that are not used in the night be converted into night shelters, but they have not got a response from the government.

This invisible population of the metropolis came to the limelight early this year when a Delhi government shelter was demolished by the MCD in December 2009. Officials of the MCD said the Delhi government had not taken their permission before erecting a shelter in the MCD area. Two persons from the shelter died of cold subsequently. Following media reports on the incident, the Delhi High Court took up the matter suo motu on January 6 and directed the government to provide shelter to the homeless people.

Although the campaign for homeless people's rights has been going on since 1999, when activists such as Harsh Mander and Supreme Court Commissioner N.C. Saxena began to highlight the issue, the Delhi government acknowledged the presence of the homeless through a survey only on July 13, 2010. Delhi Chief Secretary Rakesh Mehta and Rashmi Singh, director of Mission Convergence (a Delhi government programme to survey the urban poor and provide them single-window access to welfare schemes). With this an elaborate survey has begun to get a head count of the homeless people and record all details, including footpath addresses, in order to provide them Unique Identification cards.

This is a radical step in acknowledging the presence of the homeless. We could not have ignored the homeless people for long, and surveying the urban poor, which started under Mission Convergence, would not have been complete if the homeless people had been left out. It is the first time in India that homeless people are being surveyed and acknowledged. Bangladesh is the only country in South Asia that has initiated a process like this, but ours is a much more elaborate programme. We have realised that community-based organisations could not do this job as there is no feeling of community among the homeless people. We need a different kind of approach to build their capacities. This would include mental counselling and drug rehabilitation too, said Rashmi Singh.

However, it is only with funds from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) that Rashmi Singh managed to make the survey a reality. In order to make one agency accountable and to prevent bureaucratic high-handedness, the authorities under the municipal corporations have been dissolved and the staff brought under one urban shelter improvement board, which works under Mission Convergence. This, many believe, will bring more synergy to the decision-making process and make the body more autonomous.

The survey is being carried out by NGOs. They, in turn, are monitored by a mother NGO in charge of the mission's funds. The mother NGO is also responsible for coordinating the processes and acts as a central coordination unit. The NGOs run homeless resource centres in various areas to provide these people access to welfare schemes once the survey is complete.

This is a much more complex process than it sounds. Homeless people can be rightly called antisocial because of their poor experiences in life. Their social fabric is completely different. Most of these people are heavily into cheap narcotic drugs. The women grow up to be abnormal beings. I remember talking to many girls who wanted to marry the strongest person on their footpath so that he could ensure them a permanent place on that footpath. It is a general notion that if you marry a criminal [strong], you can be assured of a place to live. We experience a strong antipathy towards society and social norms among the homeless. In the survey, we have to cope with this attitude, work very hard to get their cooperation, said Dr Amod Kumar, convener of the mother NGO.

He says the footpath residents are reluctant to come to the many health camps that are conducted because of the social disconnect. The woman without a shelter likes to give birth to her child on the road rather than in a hospital. Same is the case with those suffering from tuberculosis or other diseases. Hospitals are perceived by them as some disciplining authority trying to control their lives. The youth are repulsed by the skyscrapers as they remind them of their own sorry state of affairs. Depression is a huge problem among the homeless people. All these need to be tackled, Amod Kumar says.

The survey takes place in the night as the people return to the pavements only at that time. A survey officer is accompanied by a health officer who gives first aid to the wounded people and take the seriously ill to hospital.

The issue of homelessness demands a nuanced approach, and the survey is doing exactly that. It intends to even out the welfare schemes in all the localities. Amod Kumar says the idea is to find out every homeless person so that welfare schemes can reach them. The first thing we want is to help them open bank accounts so that they can save the little money they earn. We have seen that none of these people saves any money because of the absence of a shelter. If they sleep on the road with money, there is a high chance of their pockets being picked in the night. We have seen a person kill another just for a blanket. So, money can become another liability for them. That is why they spend their money on alcohol and drugs. They are actually citizens of nowhere, he says.

While the current survey is the first of its kind, the fact that the homeless people are at the mercy of the state and its exclusive policies is common knowledge. In her essay Maximum City, Minimum Shelter, Usha Ramanathan, a lawyer, while speaking about the slum demolition drive, says, The Indian city is in the throes of change. It is being re-imagined, with ambitions of becoming a Shanghai, a Singapore, or, more generally, a world city'. Naturally, there is no longer any space in it for the poor and their squalid settlements. Characterising the slum-dweller as an encroacher' and as being in illegal occupation [of] government land' has lent language and an assumed legitimacy to the epidemic of demolitions that have been unleashed on the urban poor the imagery has taken the slum-dweller past illegality to criminality.

The hypothesis fits the attitude of privileged society towards the homeless perfectly. The story of the homeless is one of those childhood fables of a haunted house full of ghosts. The homeless people represent those ghosts today. People are scared of them. Consequently, they should remain untouched and invisible in the shadows on some dirty pavements.

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