Dilli hamari bhi hai-Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan

Wednesday, March 14th, 2007

There are over 100,000 homeless people living in Delhi. Only 7,000 of them can be accommodated at the capital's shelters for the homeless. Of the 19 shelters in the city, nine are operated by Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan.

As night falls and the cold begins to creep in outside Delhi's famous Kalkaji Mandir, the beggars who line the route to the temple and live on the generosity of worshippers huddle together eating their last meal of the day. Sura Mahua, 70, from Nandwara Gaon, Bandha zilla in eastern Uttar Pradesh, and his friend Purmuh, 80, from Jhansi, wrap themselves in a torn quilt, their dog Nanda curled up beside them. They don't seem too bothered by the overflowing drain nearby that smells of putrid waste.

Sura worked as a labourer in his village tending the fields of the landed. He and his late wife brought up their family. Each year proved more and more difficult as the rains began to vanish; soon, eking out a living was impossible. And so they left their home and the village in the hope of making a new beginning in Delhi.

"I reached Delhi with my son and his family on Raksha Bandhan day. We all worked as labourers on the flyover. My daughter-in-law cleared and weeded the grass and flowering shrubs. We lived together. Then I could not get work as my age slowed me down. I did not want to be a burden on the children so I came away to the mandir. God is kind," says Sura. He and Purmuh stay the night in a tented shelter run by Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), a rights-based CSO supported by ActionAid that runs government shelters for the homeless.

Away from the temple lights there are many men and women like Sura and Purmuh living out on the streets. They are old, wizened with age, bad nutrition and crippling poverty. They live in circumstances that are devoid of any human dignity. Sura admits that one day he could end up as just another unclaimed body on the road, disposed of by the corporation or the police. "It used to weigh on my mind when I saw my old friend die that way, but, like Purmuh says, 'Na jaane kal ki khabar na pal ki, jeevan guzar rahi hai to dar kis baat ki' ('No one knows about tomorrow or the present, life goes on so what is there to fear'). I have left my death to God."

People like Sura exist on the periphery of social conscience. They are often viewed as destitutes and petty criminals, when in reality they are rural, uneducated people who have been forced out of their villages due to recurrent floods or drought. Or they have been made redundant, as their traditional skills of weaving or craft no longer sell. Delhi's homeless are migrants from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh who take up work as rickshaw-drivers and casual labour and are paid below-the-minimum wages despite contributing to the city's growth.

"There are over 100,000 homeless people in Delhi. The figures may be higher as slums are being demolished to make way for new infrastructure, and migration is on the rise," says Paramjeet Kaur, Director of AAA. "Why they appear invisible is because their existence on the streets and pavements is illegal, as they have no ration cards, no identity cards. Our studies have shown that except for a very small number who are old or crippled and who subsist as beggars, almost all of them work. Even children work as ragpickers because only then can they survive."

Ziyara looks as if she is 40, though she claims she is no older than 27. Gaunt and anaemic, living on the streets leading up to Nizammudin Dargah has not been easy for her. Says Kaur: "For women, the struggle to survive on the streets creates acute anxiety and manifests itself in various physical and psychological problems. They have to be constantly on the alert against being exploited and abused, besides looking for survival, food and shelter. We have found that the prevalence of depression is as high as 90% among street women. Living in unhygienic conditions they are also prone to gynaecological and other medical problems. Homeless men and children too suffer a whole range of physical and mental ailments."
Ziyara recounts how her two children were born on the streets five years ago, when she came to Delhi with her husband. Now they are aged four and three, and looking after them leaves her constantly tired and depressed. Her husband works in the dargah doing menial jobs for the khadim. At night, Ziyara and her husband Salim sleep in the government tented shelter run by AAA. Ziyara sleeps with her children, curtained and with the other women; Salim sleeps with the men.

The men pay Rs 6 every night to sleep indoors with two blankets, which, during severe winters, is not enough. The women and children are not charged. The neighbourhood bathroom can only be accessed by paying Rs 2 each time. Many people end up defecating out in the open, unable to pay.

The money collected from the men using the shelter goes towards its day-to-day management, providing minor healthcare and subsidised food, buying cleaning material and providing salaries to the community workers who help run the shelters. Paramjeet Kaur explains: "The money that we collect to run the shelters is meagre because we have to pay commercial tariffs for electricity and water, and as this is a non-profit organisation such rates are crippling."       

During summer, 19 shelters are up and running all over Delhi. Of these, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) runs 10, while AAA runs nine. Unlike the MCD shelters that operate only at night, eight of AAA's nine shelters operate 24 hours; one -- at St Anthony School -- is run only at night. Together, the MCD and AAA run the only shelter in Delhi for women, in Yamuna Pushta.

During the winter months, the shelters are boosted to 50 all around Delhi, with the capacity to accommodate 7,000 people. With 100,000 people homeless in Delhi, Kaur admits that only a small number of people can be sheltered against the city's freezing cold.

Kaur and her team work tirelessly to ensure that all the shelters are ship-shape. They also have the difficult task of scouring the streets every night and providing blankets, clothes and medical attention to the homeless. She admits that what AAA does is 'crisis management' every night, and a lot still needs to be done.     

Marginalised and vulnerable, the homeless are unable to access government schemes as few possess any form of identification. Therefore they are not important enough to constitute a vote bank for political parties. Nor do they have any rights over the pavements they live on.

"The homeless have a right to shelter, right to life and livelihood, and the State is accountable to everyone. Those who migrate from their villages are already in a very delicate condition, and living on the streets only makes them more vulnerable to disease and abuse. What makes our work difficult is that every six months to a year, MCD officials looking after slums are transferred and we have to convince the new ones that shelter is the basic right of the homeless. The Delhi government has no existing policy on this, and although the chief minister is very supportive, the bureaucracy is not very open," says Kaur.

The 1991 census recorded 95 lakh migrants in the capital alone. In 2001, this figure had risen to more than 144 lakh. Delhi's first Human Development Report, completed with the help of the United Nations Development Programme, shows that, every day, 665 people flee unemployment as traditional work is being phased out and poverty becomes rampant. As slums get demolished to make way for shopping malls, roads or flyovers, the figures on urban poverty are likely to climb.

Until a few years ago, says Kaur, the Union government allocated Rs 1 crore for night shelters for the homeless around the country. AAA points out that the government's growing acknowledgement of rising homelessness is evident in the fact that Delhi's Master Plan 2021 is looking at ensuring space for 5 lakh homeless. There is also talk of multiple use of buildings to accommodate them.

But AAA is not waiting around for government reforms to help the homeless. It runs a series of activities in the shelters, perhaps the most successful being the postal service started up in a bid to unite the homeless with their families back home. With no fixed address, getting mail from home was impossible for people living on the streets. AAA set up Post Box 2210 and was surprised when it was inundated with mail. A number of families came to Delhi to be united with their runaway children. Says Sanjay Kumar, coordinator, AAA: "This is one of our biggest success stories, as the response has been overwhelming. A young man who had run away from Lucknow and worked as a rickshaw-puller got a surprise visit from his family. He has since returned and is now married. A lot of runaways have been united through this mail service, and others get news from home."

In the past five years, AAA has established 18 street contact points all over Delhi. In addition to smaller contact points, efforts are on to organise and enlarge homeless collectives, under AAA's Shelter for All campaign. Already three panchayats on the homeless have been held, where over 6,000 people gathered, contributing towards expenses. The last mahapanchayat's slogan said it all: 'Dilli Hamari Bhi Hai' ('Delhi Is Ours Too').

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