Deaths of homeless persons in cold wave expose their high vulnerability and unmet needs

Homeless India

Recently the Centre for Holistic Development, a voluntary organization based in Delhi, stated on the basis of compilation of zonal integrated police network data that about 180 homeless persons had died in the first 23 days of January in Delhi. As the city has experienced a harsh winter, it is not difficult to figure out that the exposure to cold weather is likely to have been the main or an important contributing factor for many of these deaths. This is all the more likely keeping in view the several other reports of many people remaining in the open at night during this winter due to the shortage of shelters providing reasonable levels of facilities and hygiene.

In fact despite the shortage of existing shelters, five shelters near Dandi Park, Kashmere gate were shut down this month (January 2024). This comes on top of demolition of nine shelters in early 2023.

This is not to say that the problems of homeless persons are increasing only in Delhi. Disturbing reports have been received from elsewhere too. To give an example, the Tribune reported on January 24 that four persons have died in cold way conditions at three railway stations of Amritsar district within one week.

While several daily wage workers, unemployed and destitute people need shelters in our cities as they are homeless, the urban authorities have not lived up to the challenge. This is not because they lack resources, as these authorities have been able to find the money for several grand and expensive projects which are not so essential. The real problem is that they have not given the kind of priority that is needed for the problems of the homeless people who constitute the most vulnerable section of the urban population.    

Although their problems have been generally highlighted in the winter months and in cold wave conditions, the fact remains that even in scorching afternoons of summer months and during the torrential rains of the monsoon months shelters are much needed to protect from different kinds of extreme weather. In addition, of course, conditions of safety are important all through the year, particularly for women and children.

While on the one hand more resources are needed for the homeless people, on the other hand better planning is also needed. While providing adequate shelter space with proper facilities may be the most urgent need of the homeless people, this is not their only need and a more comprehensive program that covers health, food security and identity needs ( such as providing them a postal address) is needed. While the homeless are among the poorest people in cities, they generally cannot get the benefit of the most important program of the government based on subsidized or free food grain obtained through ration cards. So a program that can meet their food needs at a subsidized and low price would be particularly relevant for them.

Demolitions of homes in many cities have been adding to the numbers of homeless people. Increasingly this is being done without rehabilitation efforts and schemes being in place. Where will the people made homeless in this way go? Most of them do not have savings to make any alternative arrangements on their own. In this way while there is a shortage of shelters to meet the needs of the existing number of homeless people, the number of homeless people is further increasing due to unjust demolitions. While the policy precept of on-site facilities and improvement of slums still gets lip sympathy, in practice there have been too many unjust demolitions.

Earlier there was a time when there was much more space for a rights-based approach to many-sided development activities for the homeless people, but then the government authorities, in Delhi for example, started discouraging this by resorting to a tenders based approach in which the role of activist organizations was sought to be reduced to submitting tenders for receiving funds to run government shelters. This has harmed the mobilization and many-sided improvement of homeless persons based on their rights as a highly vulnerable section of the urban population.

A time has come to monitor again to what extent the directions of the various courts as well as commitments of governments for implementing compassionate policies for homeless people have been neglected. Clearly a much higher priority must be assigned to meeting the needs of homeless persons all over the country. Some immediate improvements are also needed as the cold wave in many parts of the country has been a more extended one this time.

The wider issue is that of increasing problems of the homeless people in many countries of the world. The most surprising example is that of very well-resourced, rich countries like the USA where nevertheless the number of homeless persons as well as their distress have been increasing in recent times in shocking ways.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include When the Two Streams Met, Man over Machine and A Day in 2071.

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