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Desperate Lives in Unforgiving Streets: The Plight Of Kolkata’s Homeless

Posted on May 7, 2014 in Society, Specials

By Pranjal Rawat:

While globalization and liberalization takes the dreams of the urban youth across all borders and transatlantic horizons, there is a reality within this country that simply cannot be suppressed anymore. There is a truth, one that we may not choose to accept, right in front of our eyes. To learn more about the poorest and most marginalized people in the city of Kolkata, students from Presidency University surveyed 524 pavement dwellers in Central Kolkata. Here is what we found.


Firstly, identification is in a massive crisis. Democracy, the fundamental core of our modern civilization, is being denied to the homeless of Kolkata. Only 44% of adults hold a voter ID, denying the rest a chance to imply. The oppression of women in this patriarchal society shows when only 37% of adult women held the right to vote. Literacy, it appears, has a significant effect on the ability to participate in democracy, and we found that it was more likely for a literate person to hold a voter ID. Less than one third had an Above Poverty Line/Below Poverty Line card. There are cases when police has snatched away key identification.

Secondly, food security is lacking. About 55% of the homeless households have two meals a day; 11% survive on just one. Only 42% of them have a ration card to avail themselves of subsidized food from the government. About 71% of the homeless households still burn wood as fuel, while only 26% have a decent stove to cook on. The Food Security Act (2013) mandates that 50% of urban citizens be eligible for subsidy, yet will fail to cover all due to insufficient identification.

Thirdly, education is in serious crisis. Less than half of the children do not attend nursery and play school. Boys begin to dropout in middle school, and only then does the enrolment of girls rival that of the boys. Girls find it much harder to reach school. Those children in school face beating and abuse, which forces them to dropout. Political awareness is astonishingly low, only 12% have heard of Narendra Modi, and only 18% have heard of the welfare scheme ‘Kanyashree-Yuvashree Yojana’. Superstition and belief in black magic is rampant and about 40% of the households had faith in magic men.

Fourthly, there is a huge dearth of crucial physical and financial assets. 79% of these homeless households did not have mosquito nets to protect themselves from disease carrying insects. 60% of the homeless do not have a bed sheet. Only 15% of the homeless have bank accounts; out of that only 29% have borrowed money and only 37% have saved anything. Financial inclusion is a major worry since the current developmental policy of the government is shifting towards ‘Direct Benefit Transfers’ that need the poor to be able to use bank accounts.

Fourthly, healthcare is suffering. There is no hygiene on the streets. Life amongst rotten food, dust, glaring traffic noises and stray dogs is bound to take a toll on their health. We have seen people living in the most deplorable of conditions. Only 16% of the women use sanitary pads during menstruation. A large number of women, superstitiously, do not breastfeed their children on the first day, while the child loses out on extremely important nutrients. 70% households have an addiction problem; 11% report substance abuse (adhesives, whitener, ganja).

Lastly and most shockingly, is the culture of violence. About 30% of all households have reported police violence, 10% have reported harassment of women. 15% report violence from thugs and goons, 12% report damage from traffic. Help does not easily come to the homeless households when only 4% have been helped by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and only 2% claim that the government helps them in cash and in kind. The homeless children grow up in this world of fear and tension. In a horrifying analysis, about one third of all households have lost at least one child. Some die due to road accidents, some die due to jaundice and dengue, some die due to poisoning while others die of burns. Death is but inches away from the homeless children.

What is important is to realize that the streets of Kolkata are completely removed from civilization and democracy. The pavements form a no-man’s land where a terrible battle for survival ensues everyday. A battle that the homeless fight, against the world and its dream-crushing, heart-breaking and life-threatening advances. There is nothing to uphold the fundamental promises of liberty, equality and fraternity that contemporary democracy claims to uphold. Some of these homeless have been here since the British raj (8%). This hints at policy ineffectiveness. Be it the imperialism of the British, the Nehruvian socialism of the Congress, the unionization of the Left Front or the ‘poriborton’ of the Trinamool Congress; substantial development has not reached the pavements.

The political economy of the streets is rich with diversity and informal occupations. It functions as a vital organ within the larger political economy of Kolkata. The odd job and menial labor, often given little importance, is in fact the bedrock of the urban economy. Development and growth must be inclusive. There is a strong need for policy reform, an immediate establishment of law and order and a determined effort to include these ‘invisibles’ into the forefront of economic progress. The short-run or immediate interventions necessary are to firstly prevent gross state violence and police oppression and secondly, begin a process of identification that will enable the homeless to have a say in the upcoming General Elections.

For a longer in-depth analysis, please check out the Kolkata Homeless Survey Facebook Page.