Earlier, cities were considered as an option to escape rural poverty but for the last few years these spaces are increasingly turning hostile to the casual migrants who come to the cities in search of employment. This hostility is in the form of unemployment, homelessness, and indifference form the people and government. On the eve of World Homeless Day, an attempt was made to understand this complex system of urban poverty by focusing on the homeless people in the national capital.
Before we begin the discussion on the conditions of homeless people in New Delhi, it is important to understand who are these homeless people and what is their role in the city. The technical definition describes them as those who do not have a roof over their head and live in open areas like pavements.
I would take this definition one step further. Homeless people are the ones who are engaged in odd jobs like rickshaw-pulling, waste-picking, casual labour, street vending, among many other such jobs. They have no social and financial security and mostly live on the streets. The homeless are the city makers who contribute to the economy of the city just as the other classes do.
The homeless people are more ecologically more sustainable than others. They do not use the vehicles which is the major source of pollution. Instead, they use the mode of the cycle or the service of rickshaws. Many are waste-pickers helping to keep the cities clean. Despite their contributions, they are not regarded as an important part of the city and live in one of the worst conditions, often subjected to several vulnerabilities.
Cities are viewed as engines of growth but this growth is unequal and marginalises the section of the people, forcing them to live on the edge. Over the years, the number of homeless people in the city has increased. The official Census figures claim that there has been an increase of about 36.78% in the urban homeless population throughout the country. In New Delhi, the number of homeless has increased from 0.21% of the total population in 2001 to 0.28% in 2011. This is government-generated data, and many civil society organisations claim that it is a very low estimation of the actual figure. But still, if we accept this figure, the increase in number is very much visible. With the rapid pace of urbanisation, the number of homeless people is also increasing.
The figure of homeless deaths in the capital does not seem to be changing much from the previous year. According to a report, about 181 homeless people died in 2016. As many as 44 homeless people died in January this year, and the chilling winter is yet to arrive in the city. The deaths of homeless people in the city are used by politicians to reap political benefits. However, on the ground no considerable efforts have been made improve their condition.
The number of homeless population in Delhi is believed to be around 1,25,000, but according to the government’s record, the occupancy rate is just 8,500 – at its peak. The reason behind the low occupancy rate is the abysmal condition of homeless night shelters. Apart from this, there are around 9,240 homeless women, who are more vulnerable than the others, but there are only twenty shelters with a capacity of 2024 catering to the needs of the homeless population in the city. And even in the night shelters, according to the HLRN report, the cases of harassment and sexual abuse are also widely prevalent. The figures clearly show the inadequacy of the system and the abusive behaviour of the city towards the poor homeless women in the capital of the country.
The homeless people in the capital are not only deprived of a roof but also of an identity which is a crucial tool to establish a claim in the city. Since most of the homeless people are migrants and do not possess any legal proof, it is very difficult for them to obtain an identity proof in the capital. The Election Commission of India clearly made a provision for the homeless to get voter ID cards without any address proof but the number of homeless people having a voter ID card in the capital is very minuscule. An RTI filed by Centre for Holistic Development in Feb 2018 shows that only 4079 homeless people in the national capital possess a voter ID card. This means the majority of homeless people are deprived of their fundamental political right to chose their leaders. The right to cast a vote can be their significant bargaining tool with the political parties seeking their votes. It is tragic that two major elections-Delhi Assembly election and Lok Sabha election- are due in a few months and these people do have any say in who comes to power and takes note of their problems.
The Modi government takes pride in launching PMAY scheme which promised to give housing to all by 2022. But in PMAY there is not even a single component which addresses the homeless population. Term ‘housing for all’ in the scheme is just an illusion for the homeless people. The condition of other policies is not very different either. The smart city project of the national capital, which will develop the NDMC area as a smart city, does not even talk about the existing population of the homeless. The proposal has a vision to take the city to a global level benchmark and the whole proposal is full of words like ‘smart’, ‘technology’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘world class’. The proposal does talk about the safety of women and children, but there is no mentioning of homeless people in the proposal, hinting that it is only meant for the privileged class of the society.
When we look at the other side of this homelessness in the capital we get a very ironical image. On the one hand, in Delhi, lakhs of people are living without a roof. On the other hand, several properties are lying vacant in the city. A Times of India report claims that Gurgaon has around 50,000 unsold inventory. Another report of Dainik Jagran claims that about 5.26 lakh houses are lying empty in the national capital. The reason behind emptying of so many housing dwelling is the unaffordability. One of the major reasons behind these huge stock of unsold inventory is unaffordable real estate prices or rentals. Government’s privatisation and investment-led policy just for the sake of economic growth is leaving the poor people unable to afford a house in the city.
The case of homeless people in Delhi clearly shows how the services of urban poor people are used, but no recognition is given to them for that. The death of homeless people in the city has just become a tool to politically mobilise the people, while the governance mechanisms for the homeless has remained inadequate and inefficient for decades now. The unregulated run of privatisation is ensuring that homeless people are out of the home. Homeless women are the most vulnerable to sexual abuse, yet their cases are rarely reported. The homeless are pushed to the edge after their services have been consumed.
This World Homeless Day, there is a need to break the myth that homeless people do not work because this makes them invisible in the city. However, blaming the government entirely will be wrong as even the urban people are responsible for the abysmal condition of the homeless. Hence every individual in the city has to come forward and help the homeless or poor fight for their city rights.
The writer is part of urban poverty team of Indo Global Social Service Society and also the member of Shehari Adhikar Manch: Begharo Ke Sath(SAM: BKS)Delhi.