It was a day of reckoning for Pawan Kumar, a migrant labourer from Agra, Uttar Pradesh. As the mercury dipped to five degrees, he had to decide whether to sleep in a night shelter or on the street. In the past 22 years, he never slept in a night shelter for two reasons – bedbugs, and dirty blankets. He survived all the seasons on the streets, but as he ages, the risk of getting sick has got more prescient. And perhaps he knows that even if he dies, his death will go unnoticed, disguised as a “cold wave deaths”, just another digit in the statistic. He has no family to grieve for him either. So this year, he finally decided to line up outside the temporary tents that have been put up in Chandni Chowk by the Delhi government. But he has his reservations. “There are lice in the blankets in the rain baseras. That’s why I prefer sleeping on the streets. They are cleaner,” he says.
For Ummed Yadav though, the night shelter is daily refuge, where he retires after his day long labour. With the temperatures dropping below the average, even touching 1 degree, thousands of homeless persons in Delhi like Kumar and Yadav have no alternative but to seek refuge in one of the 195 permanent night shelters that the Delhi government runs for the homeless. But within the confines of these shelters - 82 buildings, 112 port cabins, three temporary buildings, and 79 tents - 276 establishments total - the lives of the homeless remain precarious.
There are at present 19-night shelters for families, 17 exclusively for single women, two for pregnant women, four for drug addicts, and three for recovering persons. In total, there are about 195 permanent shelters for the homeless in Delhi. Together, these officially cater to about 18,000 people.
While most of the shelters in Delhi accommodate long-term residents - persons living in the shelters almost permanently for years, the winters bring a flurry of rolling occupants. Some stay for a few nights, and some stay on for the whole season, thus adding to the familiar problem that occurs every year - overcrowding in night shelters and deaths of homeless persons.
Last week, the Delhi government led by Arvind Kejriwal was left red faced after BJP leaders alleged poor conditions in the shelter homes and raised hell about deaths of homeless persons in the winter. Delhi BJP general secretary Harsh Malhotra said that as per the Delhi Police's data, 779 homeless people died in the winter of 2018-19, 749 in 2019-20, 436 in 2020-21 and 545 in 2021-22 in the months of December and January. Moreover, the BJP hs also claimed that 160 people have died in 30 days in December since temperatures plummeted in 2022.
“We try to accommodate as many people as possible within the shelters,” says Brajesh, district in-charge of SPYM, one of the non-profit organisations that work with the Delhi government and DUSIB to carry out the day-to-day functioning of the rain baseras.
Inside the Fatehpur shelter home located at a building that was formerly a prison, Brajesh points out that there are 250 beds and as many as 400-450 people are accommodated within the premises every night during winter. “Some labourers sleep on the floor”, he says. Even during summer, there are at least 200 to 250 persons in the night shelters on any given day.
“This is a marketplace. The area sees a lot of incoming migrants, buyers, and sellers, from across the country. We do our best to maintain decorum and provide each of the inmates with basic amenities like clean food, water, and lodging”, Brajesh tells Outlook.
However, he adds that life inside a shelter home is not easy and the problem of addiction is pervasive. “There are people from across the country, with different attitudes and worldviews, trying to live under one roof. 95 percent of them are substance abusers. They get high and get into fights and brawls. It takes a lot of effort to maintain peace,” he states. Moreover, the unhygienic conditions, make these shelter homes inhabitable, and vulnerable to infectious deseases.
Praveen Singh, the caretaker at one of the temporary tents that have been put up across Delhi as part of the Winter Action Plan to aid the homeless till the month of March, says that NGOs like SPYM who hire the staff often give out training to applicants on how to tackle the issue of homelessness and how to treat the homeless and the addicts with compassion and support instead of scorn. “Many homeless people do not come in voluntarily, especially addicts. Society’s response is to scorn them and denigrate them based on their social status. Our rescue teams that go out at night find such homeless persons and bring them inside shelters. We help them clean up, and give them fresh clothes and a warm meal. We try to help them find a way to live with dignity,” Singh adds.
As per the Delhi government, 15 rescue teams have been formed under the Winter Action Plan to bring in homeless persons to the night shelters. In December, Delhi deputy CM Manish Sisodia claimed that the rescue teams had rescued over 1,500 homeless people across the city since the plan’s commencement.
But how far does creating a homeless shelter go to help the homeless? Activists and organisations working with land rights and homelessness however argue that providing homeless shelters is not enough and the that the Delhi government needs to focus less on temporary shelters and more on permanent housing solutions for the homeless.
“The government has reached its target of creating one shelter home per one lakh persons under its Master Plan 2001-2021 as per the National Urban Livelihood Mission — Shelter for Urban Homeless (NULM-SUH) guidelines. However, it has conveniently ignored the clause about providing 50 sq ft/5 sq m standard space for every homeless person in the shelters,” non-profit body Housing and Land Rights Network’s representative Ashok Pandey tells Outlook.
In a majority of the night shelters Outlook visited, caretakers and inmates complained of constant fights over space and lack of privacy. Many inmates also complained about a lack of basic resources like clean toilets and beds and safety for their belongings. One inmate at the Fatehpur night shelter informed Outlook that his slippers had been stolen but the authorities did not do anything about it.
Moreover, the rain basera strategy that the government has so far adopted to provide temporary lodging to the homeless fails to look at shelters as a holistic entity and only treats them as night shelters meant for sleeping. Night shelters built in porta cabins or parking structures, for instance, are not built to utilise space for varied activities considered essential for a life of dignity including spaces to socialise, to cook (kitchens), to rear children, and to store their belongings etc.
Anagha Jaipal, also from HLRN, adds that even if the condition of night shelters is improved, it is still not a long-term solution. “Night shelters are a temporary and emergency response to a crisis. But as long as the government fails to provide holistic rehabilitation or housing for these people, they will continue to remain homeless and thus vulnerable.”
While the official data on homelessness based on the 2011 census pegs the number at just over 46,000, activists estimate that there are 1.5-2 lakh homeless persons in Delhi at present including about 30,000 women. The staggering numbers dwarf the number of beds available in the night shelters.
Unfortunately, the Delhi Master Plan 2041 which promises to be one of the most ambitious housing redevelopment plans, has given little comfort to land rights activists.
“The new Action Plan is only aimed at helping those who already have housing like informal settlers. It does not address the homeless and in fact, does nothing to increase homeless shelters,” Jaipal adds.
She states that the 2021-41 draft suggests a reduction of plot size of rain baseras and neglects prescribed requirements vis a vis space and facilities of the homeless population.
Sunil Kumar Aledia, who works with the Centre for Holistic Development in charge of coordinating and executing night rescue missions for the homeless states that the problem is that the government’s policy for the homeless ends at providing night shelter. “The point is that once the shelter is provided, what after that? How to ensure safety outside the shelter home? How to ensure homeless women can be assimilated into normal lives and get paying jobs? There is no provision for that, no rehabilitation for the homeless.
The real question is, how to convert rain baseras into housing? The government has no policy for that.
Aledia feels that at a policy level, homelessness does not get the same treatment as other markers of social inequalities such as hunger or health as many don’t link it to death. “People associate hunger with death but not homelessness. But homelessness does cause death,” Aledia states.
Though there is no official data on deaths due to homelessness, human rights activists Harsh Mander and Sarah Jacob in their 2010 paper Homeless Deaths On The Streets noted, that on average, 10 unidentified bodies showed up in Delhi every day. While police explain some of the bodies found near transit areas or railway stations as those belonging migrants who just arrived at the city, the fact remains that homeless deaths are an avoidable yet repeated calamity that is often disguised under the garb of other terms.
Terming fatalities in winter as “cold wave deaths”, for instance, can often deceive people into believing that the deaths are the result of climatic conditions. However, the high number of homeless deaths in the winter is not a result of a “cold wave” but government apathy and failure to provide for the homeless. Law scholar Usha Ramanathan once said, “When people die because they are exposed to the elements, it is not a natural death. It is death caused by neglect and reckless disregard for the responsibility of the state to protect the lives of the poor. It is as if the poor do not matter. As if they have to keep paying for their poverty, even with their lives.”.