The homeless are systematically ostracised from all aspects of society. The India Under the Stars campaign outlines the urgent need for legislation that recognises their rights as citizens
Pulled in by its cultural importance, thousands of beggars flock to the city of the Maha Kumbh, Allahabad, each year.
The city also serves as a great getaway for the poor of Purvanchal and neighbouring Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, in hope that migration will change their fortunes. However, without any shelter, once on the streets they are easy prey to crime, substance abuse and administrative apathy. Tales of harassment and abuse by drunkards and street ruffians are common.
A row of rickshaws are parked close to the Civil Lines bus station here each night. Around 80-90 people survive there under the sky, living a largely anonymous and solitary life.
“I am just a rickshaw puller. Who cares where I go after I drop the passengers to their destination?” asks Shivam, who hails from the Trans-Yamuna region of Allahabad.
Around 11,000 homeless people live in Allahabad, surviving on the streets, pavements, at chaurahas (crossings) and parks, bearing the cold, heat and the rain. Add to that, administrative apathy. In fact, small attempts made by the homeless to raise tents are immediately shattered by the local municipality.
Pankaj Kumar, a daily-wage labourer, sleeps on the pavement outside the Allahabad railway station with 15-20 companions.
“I have to be careful of the local goons. They steal my money if I'm not alert. Sometimes, they drink and ask us to share our food. If we don't give in, they beat us,” he says.
There are no laws protecting the homeless. At the local level there are schemes and policies for their ‘rehabilitation’. But an alarming majority of them are unaware of such facilities.
Most of the homeless in Allahabad are illiterate. And almost every one we spoke to did not possess or was not carrying any form of identity card. However, despite their gruelling existence on the streets, the homeless are bound by fears of ill-treatment at shelter homes. Out of the 11 shelter homes in Allahabad, only three are functioning. However, these can accommodate only 400 people and run in pitiable conditions.
“We won't be chased out once we go there?” a old woman pops out her head from her thin rag blanket close to the Allahabad High Court. A thin, young man seated a few feet away adds: “Yes, what if they chase us out? And my spot here is captured by someone else?”
“The caretakers do not care about the homeless. They ask for bribes for every small thing and totally neglect the poor,” says Nazim Ansari, Secretary, Abul Kalam Azad Jan Sewa Sansthan and Allahabad coordinator for the ‘India Under The Stars’ campaign.
Another challenge while allotting shelter homes to the destitute is to separate the “good ones” from the “criminal-minded”. By flocking them together, we might put the other inmates, especially women, at risk, says Mr. Ansari.
Under such circumstances, many of the homeless are “ready to bear” life under the open sky rather than face harassment and uncertainty at shelter homes. In fact, many feel “free” outside. “We have been living outside since our fathers’ times. We find comfort here. The street is our home,” says Amar, a labourer.