It was during the bitter winter of 2009-10 in Delhi that we decided to investigate how many homeless people die each day in the capital city of India. This morbid quest turned out to be deeply unsettling for each of us who engaged with it. We discovered that every day, an average of at least 10 homeless people die desolate, lonely deaths on the streets of Delhi.
Why did we undertake this grisly quest? It began when, last winter, the public conscience was stirred briefly by media reports of homeless people dying in the winter cold. Many of those who succumbed to the fierce winter chill were young working people: balloon sellers, rickshaw pullers, casual workers, street vendors.
The record of the Delhi government, these 60 years of freedom, has been dismal in extending even elementary shelters for homeless people (although governments in many other cities have failed the homeless even more comprehensively: several, like Mumbai and Chennai, have no government homeless shelters at all). Even while Delhi was witnessing some of the coldest temperatures in the last decade, the government was not stirred to take steps required to protect the people living on the streets from this extreme weather. It offered shelters to not more than three per cent of the homeless people of the city, but last winter even these few shelters were reduced, presumably because of more pressing priorities. During the earlier year, there were 46 shelters for the homeless during winters — which included 17 permanent and 29 temporary shelters. Last winter the number was reduced to 33. Matters came to a head when one of the temporary shelters was pulled down one freezing December night, to make way — according to municipal officials — for a park, and homeless people began to die at that very site.
There is ample scientific evidence that with falls in temperature, the body requires higher calories just to maintain body temperature. People die on the streets in winter simply because they are denied food and shelter. Malnutrition and hunger are the underlying causes making people susceptible to extreme weather conditions. Therefore, as Commissioners of the Supreme Court in the right to food case, we wrote to the judges of the Supreme Court that many of the winter deaths of homeless people could have been avoided had government implemented food schemes for people living on the streets, and provided shelters to them. The Supreme Court Judges Bhandari and Radhakrishnan took urgent cognizance of our letter, and directed the Government of Delhi to immediately provide as many shelters as possible. An angry High Court, led by Justice A.P. Shah, also took suo-moto notice and summoned officials of the Delhi government. In compliance of the firm dictates of the Courts, the Delhi government in two nights more than doubled the number of shelters that it had established since Independence.
These events raised for us many questions. We wondered how many people die every day on the streets of Delhi, and indeed every city. Is it a problem only of the winter? Who are these people, and why do they die?
The government keeps no records which could give us clear and direct answers to these questions. Therefore, my young colleagues Smita Jacob and Asghar Sharif set out on a grim investigation, to crematoriums, graveyards and police stations. At the end of a protracted, painful search, they came up with many disquieting findings.
Neither the police nor the hospitals keep records of people who die on the streets. But we found that the police do keep records of ‘unclaimed dead bodies' on their Zonal Integrated Police Website. These are records of people who die on streets, and sometimes hospitals. Police confirm that these bodies are mostly of single destitute homeless people, who have no family who can claim their bodies and dispose these off with dignity. We felt that these records would give us some indication of how many single homeless people die, even though it would leave out those homeless people who die but are cremated or buried by friends or other homeless people.
These police records showed that between January 1, 2005 and December 31, 2009, 12,413 unidentified dead bodies were recovered in the state of Delhi. This data for 60 months indicates an average of about seven unidentified bodies every day. This means that at least seven solitary homeless people die every day on Delhi's streets.
However, not even all single people who die on the streets enter police records. Some are directly taken to crematoriums and cemeteries. My colleagues Smita and Asghar learnt from homeless people that the electric crematorium at Sarai Kale Khan and Muslim burial ground of the Delhi Wakf Board make arrangements to dispose unidentified bodies. They requested the managers of the crematorium and cemetery to share their records of persons buried in the first four months of 2010. Poring through these registers, they found evidence of many more unidentified deaths than recorded in police records. These average 306 bodies a month — or 10 daily.
But even this is not the full story. In the many years I have worked with homeless people, I have observed that to extend decent death rites to other single and friendless homeless people, routinely homeless people raise donations from among themselves. One night in Nizamuddin last winter, a man who makes a living by disposing bodies testified to burying nine in a single freezing night. None of these enter police or cemetery records as ‘unclaimed bodies'. Nor do those who die from homeless families.
We concluded therefore that the numbers of people who die on the streets of Delhi daily are probably even more than 10. We wanted to compare this with other city residents who die in the normal course. Demographic analysis indicates that the daily death rate for one lakh people (the estimated population of homeless people in Delhi) is only two. This means that compared to people with houses, at least five, if not more, times homeless people die each day.
Our gloomy pursuit threw up still further surprises. We had assumed that homeless people would die mainly in the cold. An analysis of the police figures reveal the contrary, that homeless deaths peak not in winter, but in the summer months, followed by monsoons. Summer heat is relentless, and homeless people have no escape or respite, by day or night. It is this which probably claims most lives. Each monsoon deluge also carries its deadly burdens, refuse and waste.
We had also assumed that it would be mainly aged, infirm and disabled people who would die among the homeless. We were shocked to learn that 94 per cent who die are men, and the average age of these dead persons is 42 years. It is therefore mainly working men who die, not just the aged and destitute.
We looked closely at the records of one police station, Kashmere Gate, to collate the officially recorded causes of death. We found that only eight per cent deaths were attributed to accidents, suicides or murder. The remaining 92 per cent were listed under ‘natural causes', hunger and thirst, extreme heat or cold, diseases of poverty like TB, and a curious category reflecting government contemptuousness of the most destitute of our people: ‘beggar type'. It is evident that most of these large numbers of young men die ultimately because they are underfed and homeless.
The solutions are simple — a large network of 24-hour shelters close to sites where poorest people work, affordable housing schemes, and thousands of community kitchens supplying affordable nutritious food.
But the stark truth is that these public investments are not made, and daily avoidable deaths continue just outside our doorsteps, because they are of people who are too poor to matter.