Almost one per cent of urban population in India is homeless. As winter has already arrived, what are governments at all levels doing to provide them adequate facilities in cities
October 10 marked World Homelessness day. This is the day to reaffirm the commitment to build consistent struggles against growing homelessness in the world. Various social groups and civil society organisations are championing the cause of the homeless and have even given a call to spend 24 hours with the homeless on the streets or wherever they stay. We shall have to wait for the outcome of such a radical protest demonstration spread across various cities in India.
Homelessness is more than mere rooflessness, Homelessness is a symptom of grave economic, social and political disorder, writes Indu Prakash in his book “City Makers”. The disorder in all the three sectors has in fact worsened in the period of the last three decades in India. The cities have been turned into enterprises and the mantra to run these cities has been akin to running a business unit. Profit and burdening the people with a number of user charges is the direction of city governance. The poor especially the most marginalised groups have been the worst hit. The homeless did not even figure in the cityscape. It was only after the intervention of the Supreme Court that the homeless were targeted and night shelters were constructed.
One of the reasons for growing homelessness is the way economic vulnerability has increased in the cities. The access to material uses in the cities has shrunk over the years. Since housing was privatised homelessness was bound to increase. Another feature of the last three decades of development is large scale migration from the rural to urban areas. This is predominantly distress migration. The city development has been inversed and the city plan transformed more for the middle classes and the rich.
In any given city the standard of housing should be that 25 per cent of the houses must come from public housing domain. However, in Indian cities, the public housing which was limited to a fairly small extent fell from six per cent to just three per cent. Who will construct houses for the rest 97 per cent. The obvious answer is the market forces. But as we know the market forces work on the principle of profit. And, the poor migrating to the cities do not have access to such housing schemes. The resultant is large scale spike in the growth of slums and homelessness.
According to the 2011 census there are over 20 lakh homeless in India. However, experts point out that of the total urban population nearly one per cent are homeless. These homeless live on pavements, across the roads or at many other places.
Who are these homeless?
There is a general misnomer that the homeless are beggars. This is not true. A study conducted by the IGSSS (Indo Global Social Service Society) in Delhi slums showed that 5 per cent of the homeless are workers and under 40 years of age implying that most of the homeless in the city migrate for work and are compelled to leave the city once age-related conditions develop post 40 years of age. The second important highlight of the study is that some of the homeless are staying for more than 10 years and hence it is not a transitory phase. Majority of the homeless tend to live in groups and form communities in the same area. The study also brought in the linkage between growing informality in the cities and correspondingly growing homelessness. A majority of the homeless workers are daily wage labourers(male) and domestic workers(female). Interestingly, in one of the homeless shelters where I had the opportunity to visit it was intriguing to note that a majority of them worked part-time workers in marriage ceremonies as waiters and helpers. As pointed out, it was at the intervention of the Supreme Court that the night shelters for the homeless were got constructed. Except in Delhi where the DUSIB (Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board) was given the charge, in other cities the spaces for night shelter have been occupied for some other purpose of the city municipality on one pretext or the other. In Delhi, the DUSIB have constructed and run these shelters which are better than other shelters in the country. However, there is a pressing demand that conditions must be improved and the capacity of these shelters must be increased.
Construct labour hostels
It is surprising that a large city like Delhi does not even have a single labour hostel. What is required is to construct large number of labour hostels to ensure that the migrant workers entering the cities are accommodated in these hostels. Lessons must be learnt from the labour hostels constructed more than 100 years ago in a smalltown- Shimla, which was then the summer capital of colonial India. These labour hostels still function and accommodate a large number of migrant workers. There are even family labour hostels. These labour hostels are run by the city municipality with a nominal fee of not more than Rs 30 a month.
Another vibrant example is the labour hostels constructed by the Kerala state government in some of its cities. These labour hostels are not only modern but even cater to some of the minimum needs of the migrant workers like food and bathing. It is believed that the Delhi government is contemplating a move to copy the Kerala model of labour hostels which would definitely be very encouraging.
On this World Homelessness Day, let us resolve that the struggle to provide homes must continue along with struggle for decent living, which in fact are intricately linked.