By Achyutha Bandavath*
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which is adopted by the UN General Assembly defines “‘Homeless’ as those who do not live in a regular residence due to lack of adequate housing, safety, and availability”. (Urban homeless India: Miseries untold and Promises unmet, 2017)
The UN Economic and Social Council also defines homeless in the similar lines also covering broader aspects of security of tenure, affordability and protection from forced eviction and displacement. (Routledge, 2017)
India defines ‘homeless’ “as those who do not live in Census houses, but rather stay on pavements, roadsides, railway platforms, staircases, temples, streets, in pipes, or other open spaces” (Urban homeless India: Miseries untold and Promises unmet, 2017)
A survey conducted in May 2019 by IGSSS, a non-profit organization working for the rights of the homeless found that, in Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala states, 80% of the homeless belonged to SC, ST and other backward classes categories. There are problems of intergenerational cycle of poverty among the homeless. The most unfortunate thing found out in the survey was homeless women with malnutrition and other diseases related to mental illnesses and risky pregnancy were commonly found in these homeless vulnerable sections of the society. (Das, 2020)
- India hosts around 1.77 million homeless, out of which around 52% live in urban areas of the country according to the 2011 census. And many Advocacy groups and Housing and Land rights networks argue that this number is in fact a lower estimate and the actual number can be more than double of what is counted in census records.
- According to the same 2011 Census, about 68 million people live in informal settlements in our country (~17% of the urban population belongs to this demographic category). (Mitra, 2020)
- Eviction threats, lack of basic amenities like drinking water, adequate meals, and education and exposure to any political and urban developmental activities are some of the major hurdles these sections of our country have been facing every single day since generations.
- The government interventions, even those which are particularly focused and planned for these marginal stratums of the society, almost never touch their lives, leaving their condition only continuously deteriorating.
- Some of the very basic needs of life like drinking water is not available to them. They bathe, cook and consume the same water which is also only available from any nearby public informal settlement areas or public parks mostly available on a near daily basis only by luck.
- The extra burden of the Pandemic (Covid-19):
- In the current-day problems of the pandemic (Covid-19), there is no way these homeless people give any meaning to the popularly advocated narrative of being safe by staying at home. There is no way for these people to maintain social distancing in the informal clusters they live in. The high-density areas they live in fact turn out to be breeding areas for the virus to proliferate at an uncontrolled scale.
- Many Government organizations and NGOs like Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board have been advocating for people living in these areas to abide by the voluntary lockdown in their shelters. But the disparity here is any steps taken to serve their basic needs of food and water are not very directly spoken about especially considering the fact that most of these homeless are daily wage earners without any savings to spare while they stay home.
Rights of the homeless:
- Both at our national level and a global scale, these homeless people are without doubt having the rights to adequate housing, as even prescribed by the UN.
- It is the responsibility and duty of the legislature and executing hands of the state to ensure these rights are safeguarded for the homeless.
- The major issue of concern for the homeless is even when we have many government schemes like providing pension funds and cash relief targeting the poorest sections of the country, there is no guarantee that these schemes reach the homeless, the reason being the lack of documentation.
- In two words- overcrowding and inadequate hygiene measures, we can broadly summarise the liveability conditions of these informal settlements where homeless live in. (Mitra, 2020)
- There is already a huge known problem of TB and Malaria rapidly spreading in the slums and informal settlements of major cities like Delhi and Mumbai. These issues not only have been plaguing the living conditions of the homeless living there, but with any externally originated epidemics or pandemics easily making these areas their first targets, the health conditions of the people living there only worsen.
- The major problem for the homeless especially among those living in urban areas is that these people live in clusters in the informal settlements. As the cost and the limited availability of land in these urban areas have been peaking with the rising urban population and migration to urban areas, these informal clusters have no choice to live in a very small area there by exposing themselves to any contagious diseases and infections very easily.
Steps to eradicate homelessness:
- The state needs to prioritise the efforts of bringing clean water and at least basic sanitary conditions to the lives of these people especially during the times of any social crisis like the one we are facing with Covid-19.
- The Government launched a TDPS scheme Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) (GOI Department of Food and Public Distribution, n.d.), which is particularly targeted on reducing the hunger among the 1 crore poorest of the poor sections of the society BPL. Through this scheme food grains at a highly subsidised rate are provided to these poor destitute.
- The AAY since its launch was revised and expanded regularly to include more and more BPL population reaching to over 2.5crore as of when last announced in Union budget 2005-06
- There is a need for the Government to consider and mention these 1.77 million populations in its welfare schemes such as AAY and circulars for the benefits of the same to reach these marginal sections of the country.
- Even if we take into account these sparsely announced policies which aim to provide food to the homeless of the country, there is a disparity in terms of providing other very basic needs to this population. Something which goes hand in hand with food, water is not made accessible easily to these people, making them vulnerable to the diseases.
- According to Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a non-profit organization, during these times of covid-19, “Only the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, and Maharashtra mentioned running awareness campaigns on COVID-19 for the homeless” (Das, 2020)
- Universal provisions for food, water, sanitation, and shelter have to be provided to the homeless regardless of them not having any documentation, but based on other identification mechanisms like the region of their stay, their names, their family history and their neighbourhoods. The policies and the schemes announced by the Government must not only mention what it is providing but also clearly make apparent which organization/body would be responsible to provide the promised rations and facilities.
- The most vulnerable among the homeless are the children and women, they have to be provided with education and easy access to police and medical helpline services. Only then the problem intergenerational cycle of the homeless can be broken down and future generations could be equipped with the skills to build a self-sustaining family and shelter.
- The destitute have to be provided with financial aid by the Government by partnering with micro and small loan provider organizations to reach the scales of our huge country. These financial aid programs must be prioritised to target the most vulnerable among the homeless, like widows and women with dependent children and elderly to begin with.
- The homeless have to be included in disaster management policies of the nation and the state to ensure they don’t become invisible during the most critical defenceless situations (like the situation of Covid-19) in the policy design and implementation processes.
*MBA (PGP2) – IIM Ahmedabad
- Urban homeless India: Miseries untold and Promises unmet. (2017). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_India#cite_note-:02-1
- Routledge, T. &. (2017, July). Faces of Homelessness in the Asia Pacific. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homelessness_in_India#cite_note-:6-2
- Das, E. (2020). Retrieved from IndiaSpend: https://www.indiaspend.com/1-77mn-indians-are-homeless-40-of-them-are-getting-no-lockdown-relief/
- Mitra, R. (2020, March). Retrieved from The New Indian Express: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2020/mar/23/over-17-million-homeless-residents-across-india-struggle-to-fight-coronavirus-2120322.html
- GOI Department of Food and Public Distribution. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dfpd.gov.in/pds-aay.htm