By Ruchika Lall:
Like any big city, the world over, Delhi attracts a large number of migrants searching for better opportunities than those in their villages. However, the harsh reality is that the city does not have adequate housing options that can cater to their needs. As a result, 1.5 lakh to 2.4 lakh people find themselves homeless and on the streets of the capital city. The homeless are resigned to sleep on the footpaths and under the flyovers, vulnerable to fatal diseases and the extremes of summer, monsoons and winters of Delhi. Over the last 9 years, there have been over 33,000 documented deaths of the homeless in Delhi.
One would imagine that, considering the large numbers of those in need, the government would be working towards providing for a majority of them. However, the government night shelters provide for only one-tenth of the number of homeless in the city. Only 13% of the land dedicated by the master plan for night shelters is actually utilized for this purpose!
The homeless are often stereotyped as drug users, criminals and beggars. However, a large number of these individuals are important ‘invisibles’ in the everyday functioning of the city – rickshaw pullers, construction workers, domestic helpers, seasonal labourers and artisans. Some have been victims of multiple evictions while others may be mentally ill or elderly.
Often the condition of homelessness is an entry point into the city for many migrants in search of an upward mobility from their existing circumstances in the village. However, the lack of a basic shelter leaves them vulnerable to disease and sleep deprivation. These adverse conditions force many into a vicious cycle of remaining homeless for several years at a stretch.
Last year, I read an online call for volunteers from the Delhi-based social venture mHS CITY LAB, to crowd-source a project looking to engage with this issue. I joined their ekSHELTER initiative to develop and distribute temporary shelters for the homeless, keeping in mind how critical it is to have a basic roof on one’s head for survival. After months of prototyping and feedback, the mHS CITY LAB team came up with a prototype shelter, similar to a tent. This can be propped up in just 2 minutes to be used at night for sleeping, and can be uninstalled just as quickly to avoid police harassment during the day. Each shelter accommodates a family of 2 adults and 2 children and is assembled out of easily and widely available components – five pieces of bamboo, 2 welded rebar joints, a water resistant canvas stitched along with a mosquito net. Made possible through crowd funding for a pilot project, over a hundred shelters have been distributed so far with the help of the NGO Indo-global Social Service Society (IGSSS), with weekly feedback being collected. mHS CITY LAB hopes that the shelters can be made and used independently by the homeless themselves, without any NGO support in the future.
This November, I was a part of their team for the midnight distribution of shelters near Jhandewalan Metro Station, where approximately 30 families from the same village have been living for the last four to eight years. Their intermittent daily and seasonal income comes from making and selling idols opposite the landmark Hanuman temple. The feedback received from the women indicated they personally benefitted with the possibility of some privacy and safety for children.
In early December, the team set up a few shelters as a part of a public awareness campaign at Raahgiri Day Connaught Place. The conversations that took place varied from positive and thought-provoking reactions to a few skeptical reactions. But, it was a unique way to engage with the general public, seeding a few questions in their minds, and that’s what I hope this article does as well. I believe that people driven initiatives are an urgent necessity in the absence of adequate facilities by the government as well as to stimulate the debate on homelessness in cities. It is time to introspect on the system’s responsibility and means to provide adequate housing for so many migrants who have every right to come to the city in pursuit of a livelihood.