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
‘Dirty’ is a word that the domiciled use for the destitute regularly in India. But Tumpa, who lives on the streets of Delhi, uses it repeatedly for people she is forced to come in contact with for work and survival.
“I have been homeless in Kolkata too, where I lived on railway platforms. There were dirty people over there but you learn to recognise them and keep your distance. Here in Delhi, even the people who give you jobs talk dirty and cannot be trusted,” she says.
From Nadia in West Bengal, Tumpa was married to a ‘Hindustani’ near Bareilly at the age of 17, where she became Champa as they couldn’t pronounce her name. Extreme poverty, death of her three-year-old daughter due to diarrhoea and near starvation created tensions in her married life and pushed her to travel to the Capital with her three children in search of livelihood. Her husband refused to accompany her saying, “I will crash into the automobiles over there and die if I come.”
Her identity cards were stolen from her in Ghaziabad leaving her on the streets, eating erratically in Gurudwaras, bathing surreptitiously and living in NGO shelter homes.
“For school enrolment or for work, they need identity proof, where do I get it from?” This is why she, like many others, is anxiously waiting for the voter identity drive in the Capital to reach them.
Little do they know that the drive is moving at a snail’s pace. “This is a half hearted effort by the government where the responsibility of proving the authenticity of each case lies with the NGO activists,” according to a volunteer. While in Delhi 7000 homeless have been reportedly enrolled, in the other cities, the number is much less. Without identity cards, the homeless have no access to basic services such as health or education and they have no recourse to any legal help when in trouble. They are by far the largest unorganised group of vulnerable people in the country and nobody lobbies for them as they are disenfranchised. No politician wants to listen to their plight as they are not voters. They are systematically ostracised from all social, political and cultural aspects of society. There is an urgent need to have separate legislation for them recognising their rights as citizens, says Indu Prakash Singh of Indo-Global Social Service Society who works with the homeless.
There is a daily struggle to escape violence at the hands of both criminal elements and the police, who wield their authority in several ways.
“The police just lift their fat sticks and bam! Hit anybody who is sleeping,” says Gopal, a homeless.
There is a systematic ostracism of these people by society and they are blamed for their situation while being viewed with suspicion all the time. This criminalisation of the poor and the homeless must be stopped immediately, says Tarique of Koshish-Tata Institute of Social Science, who works with the destitute and reiterates that what makes them most vulnerable is a lack of any law governing the homeless.
There is hardly any government support for the estimated 1,87,810 families in urban and 2,59,775 families in rural areas that are homeless, as per census data. In Delhi alone there are 9,809 in the urban and 235 families in rural areas that are estimated to be homeless. Last year, a National Programme for the Urban Homeless was announced by the then President, based on the figures of burgeoning ‘urbanisation of poverty’.
The homeless were recognised as the most vulnerable group who are deprived of not only housing and shelter, but also the basic right to water, sanitation, health, education, social security, livelihoods and dignity.
The Supreme Court ordered the Delhi Government to put up 100 temporary shelters in the city. There are 65 shelters currently but there is need for twice as many. The order also mentioned the setting up of permanent shelters, community kitchens, providing AAY cards and ration cards to the homeless in all cities and Union Territories under the JnNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) as well as 700 residential schools for street children under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. But the plan has not seen the light of day yet.
Almost 200 voluntary organisations came together to organise a national campaign, ‘India Under the Stars’ in several cities across the country to flag the condition of the homeless in the country and demand for a concrete policy on the same.