January 25, 2020
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A Blanket For The Banished

Thousands die of the cold on Delhi's streets every winter. There may be a little warmth this time.

A Blanket For The Banished
Jitender Gupta
A Blanket For The Banished
Delhi’s harsh winters take a heavy toll of its estimated 1.4 lakh street-dwellers. Beat constables found 3,040 unidentified corpses on the pavements last year, most of them victims of the cold. This estimate excludes those who sleep on carts, rickshaws and tarpaulin tents as they are not classified as ‘homeless’. With them, the disinherited would number around 8-10 lakh.

On the eve of winter 2003, which the met department has said would be unusually severe, eight ngos and religious institutions have banded together to provide shelter to 20,000 homeless. The ngo network’s primary focus is shelterless women, children, handicapped and aged, the most vulnerable to the vagaries of weather.

Curiously, at a time when the number of homeless people is growing, the government is actually closing down its night shelters, or raen baseras. The rationale: the homeless do not avail of them. Last year, against a capacity of 2,454, occupancy was only 800 to 900. The ngos found that conditions in these shelters were so poor the occupants felt safer on the streets.

The ngos have adopted a three-pronged approach—taking over some of the existing government-run raen baseras; involving schools and religious institutions to provide part-time space for the homeless; and identifying unused government buildings which can be turned into night shelters. It has also involved agencies like the cii, which will be providing temporary tents.

The ngos in this initiative are Sulabh International, ywca, Prayas, Jan Shikshan Sansthan, Butterflies, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, the Delhi Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee and Childwatch India. Delhi cop Amod Kanth and former ias officer Harsh Mander are the movers behind the endeavour.

A joint apex committee (jac) of these organisations, under the municipal corporation’s slum wing, has been set up. Its shelters won’t be just a place to sleep at night for the street people. Apart from basic amenities like mats, blankets, medicines, soaps and woollen clothing, the shelters will also provide healthcare, education, vocational training, recreation, counselling, plus placement of children in homes. But most important of all, they will provide an address. The recently initiated postal service at the shelters ensures inmates can get letters from home.

Mission schools like St Anthony’s, St Mary’s and St Columbus have pitched in, allowing the homeless to sleep in their classrooms. Zakir Hussain College has followed suit. Religious establishments like the Hanuman Mandir in the heart of the city and the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurudwara in south Delhi too have opened their doors to the homeless.

The jac has identified over a hundred unused government buildings which can become shelters. For instance, it has proposed that a disused two-storeyed shopping complex in central Delhi be converted into a shelter for 300 destitute women. The proposal has been cleared in principle but is awaiting the final go-ahead from the New Delhi Municipal Committee.

But it is often not easy to secure cooperation from government agencies. Shashi of the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan points out that the homeless, lacking an identity card and a fixed address, do not represent any political constituency. Public perception of the homeless is also that of either beggars or petty criminals. The police treat them as such, not realising that 89 per cent of them are gainfully employed.

This winter, the ngo network’s initiative could well mark the difference between life and death for thousands of Delhi’s street-dwellers. You could help to add more warmth. Contact: delhi4change@actionaidindia.org or kanthamod@hotmail.com

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