As we find ourselves in the midst of a particularly severe winter – January 8, 2006 witnessed the lowest temperature recorded in Delhi since 1935 – the need for decisive action to ease the suffering of Delhi’s homeless has never been more acute. This sense of urgency, tragically, has remained conspicuously absent from the response of the city’s relevant municipal authorities.
As we find ourselves in the midst of a particularly severe winter – January 8, 2006 witnessed the lowest temperature recorded in Delhi since 1935 – the need for decisive action to ease the suffering of Delhi’s homeless has never been more acute. This sense of urgency, tragically, has remained conspicuously absent from the response of the city’s relevant municipal authorities. This is evident in the fact that the most recent official effort to document the extent of homelessness in Delhi occurred 1991 as part of the Census of India. Given that the numbers of homeless has been expanding inexorably ever since, largely due to government policies and actions, the 1991 figure of approximately 29,000 homeless that continues to be cited by authorities is a gross underestimation of the reality of the situation. Equally shocking is the lack of official data with regard to the number of homeless women in the nation’s capital. The diligent work of civil society organizations such as Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan has helped to fill the gap created by the present information vacuum.
- According to unofficial estimates, there are nearly 1 lakh homeless on any given day in Delhi.
- There are, at present: 12 permanent shelters, 16 temporary shelters, 4 porta-cabins and 22 temporary tents available for use by Delhi’s homeless.
- At maximum capacity these shelters offer accommodation to 6,200 individuals, leaving the remaining 94% to fend for themselves on the streets of Delhi.
- Unofficial estimates indicate that there are, at any given time, 10,000 homeless women in Delhi.
- At present, however, there are only 3 shelters available for use by homeless women that, at maximum capacity, are capable of accommodating roughly 100 women, or 0.1% of Delhi’s total estimated population of homeless women.
Women and Homelessness
Although the state of being homeless presents an undeniably harsh and unforgiving reality for anyone, especially during the winter months, it is women and children who tend to experience more acutely the adverse impacts of the lack of adequate shelter. Homeless women are not only exposed to the increased risk of illness and starvation associated with life on the street, but also heightened vulnerability to physical and sexual violence. Furthermore, though the vast majority of the homeless population is undoubtedly male, the actual number of homeless women tends to be grossly underestimated.
An examination of the conditions of existing permanent night shelters further elucidates both the gross negligence of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) and the Government of Delhi, as well as their continued derogation from the responsibility to help care for the most vulnerable segments of society. These shelters are characterized by a state of general disrepair and, in the most egregious of cases, are grossly inadequate and unsanitary. Forced to use these shelters due to a lack of available alternatives, many of the homeless frequently complain of a lack of water, medical facilities, storage facilities, insufficient or inadequately functioning toilets, mistreatment and abuse at the hands of MCD staff and police, and filthy and unwashed bedding.
As a meager concession, given the recent drop in temperature, the Government of Delhi has set up 22 tents for use as temporary shelters throughout the city. According to Ram Kishan, Project Officer for Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, however, “the tents provided by the government [of Delhi] are mostly constructed of poor quality material, often with gaping holes. They are, by and large, flimsy and crude, and do not provide adequate protection from the cold and rain.” Lacking adequate space, the tents are often severely overcrowded as well. Apart from being generally uninhabitable in a conventional sense, these tents also fail to satisfy any of the criteria for adequacy dictated by numerous international human rights instruments, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), whose provisions India is legally obliged to implement.
Violations of International and National Legal Obligations
The obligation to provide adequate housing and care for the most vulnerable segments of society is explicitly articulated in multiple municipal legislations, various provisions of the Indian Constitution, and numerous international human rights instruments. The current lack of sufficient and adequate shelter, together with the continued inaction on the part of the relevant authorities to address the situation, therefore, amounts to a fundamental derogation from such responsibilities and a glaring violation of the human rights of the homeless. Indeed, Chapter 3, section 12, subsection (1) of the NDMC Act 1994 clearly includes as a function of the NDMC: “The construction and maintenance of rest houses, poor houses, infirmaries, children’s homes…shelters for destitute and disabled persons…”
In order to gauge the commitment among authorities to improving the current situation of homelessness, one need only consider the number of people who have been summarily evicted from their homes in Delhi’s recent past. From February to April 2004, municipal authorities oversaw the eviction of some 1,30,000 people from their homes in Yamuna Pushta as part of a campaign of “urban renewal”. Adding insult to injury, only 16% of those evicted were considered eligible for compensation or rehabilitation of any kind. With no alternative housing or recourse available, a vast majority were forced into a state of abject homelessness. Once on the street these victims of “city beautification” find themselves the further targets of a repressive legal and regulatory framework that - through such laws as the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 – aims to push further to the periphery of society groups that have already endured severe historic marginalization.
Furthermore, the continued practice of summary and forced evictions stands in contravention of the UPA Government’s Common Minimum Programme (CMP), which provides that “Forced eviction and demolition of slums will be stopped and while undertaking urban renewal, care will be taken to see that the urban and semi-urban poor are provided housing near their place of occupation.”
Referring to the human rights implications of the current situation of homelessness, Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, stated that “The recurrent phenomenon of homelessness in the capital of the country demonstrates for all to see, the failure of governance at all levels of authority. The inability of the local, state and central government to reduce homelessness is a violation of the human rights accorded to the residents of Delhi by our Constitution and numerous international instruments ratified by India.”
Given the overwhelming lack of adequate shelter for the homeless in Delhi and the growing incidence of homeless, it is imperative that the Delhi government and relevant municipal authorities undertake the following:
- Pursue all available measures, in the interim, to expand the number of accommodations available that satisfy criteria for adequacy, including the provision of basic civic amenities such as water and sanitation, for use by the homeless during the winter months.
- Improve upon and render more structurally sound, sanitary and weather-resistant all existing structures, including tents.
- Undertake immediately an official survey in order to determine accurately the current number of homeless in Delhi and their living conditions.
- Increase urgently the number of shelters available for women and children and address their particular concerns and vulnerabilities in the development of relevant homelessness policies.
- In the long-term, abandon the wholly inadequate practice of providing tents during the winter months – more likely intended as a measure to divert further public scrutiny and media attention – in favor of more concrete and enduring solutions, such as the construction of additional shelters, or the identification of existing municipal structures that can be used for this purpose.
Of particular importance is the need for government authorities to address the underlying causes and structural origins of homelessness, for it is by way of such an analysis that the most meaningful, effective and substantive strategies may be evolved for coping with this crisis. These may include migration caused by diminishing rural livelihoods and economic opportunities, the lack of equitable land reform, social persecution, development induced displacement resulting from the construction of dams and other infrastructure-related projects, rural land alienation, forced evictions, drought and famine, domestic violence, and child abuse, to name but a few. Critical to any effort to combat homelessness is the need for a human rights approach to inform both our understanding of its causes, as well as the development of possible short-term and long-term solutions, including specific measures needed to protect the rights of particular groups such as women and children.
For further information and interviews please contact:
Miloon Kothari, Special Rapporteur on adequate housing of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights;
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Malavika Vartak, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN);
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Shivani Chaudhry, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN);
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Ram Kishan, Project Officer, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan;
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