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India: Homeless persons are compelled to risk their lives for few hours of sleep

31 August 2014

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Harsh Mander | Consumed by collective apathy

One more blood-drenched road accident. Another soul-numbing statistic. A drunken man, driving at night at crazy speeds, loses control, lunges on to a road divider, crushing 13 sleeping men. Newspapers report, the driver is arrested but released on bail next day. People forget, until the next crash. In Delhi, there were three accidents involving homeless men in one week.

The 13 men pounded by an SUV on the night of 17 August were just settling down to sleep at around 10 that Sunday night, on a road divider a few hundred metres from a Yamuna Pushta shelter, which my young colleagues run for destitute homeless men. Gautam, a 45-year-old house painter from Rajasthan, recalls that shortly after he had eaten his evening meal, “I had almost fallen asleep, when I heard a loud noise and before I knew it, something rock solid came and hit me. I was one of the first to be hit. Fortunately, my left leg was folded, not stretched. I am grateful to God that nothing worse happened. A few others were very badly injured.” Vipul, a 30-year-old casual labourer from Assam, added, “I don’t remember what happened. I heard a loud noise and after I got hit I could not get up.” Vipul’s right foot is badly damaged.

Gautam recalls the driver got off the car and tried to run. “The car was still not stable, and the man ran in the direction of the road on the other side. However, the police had already arrived, and he could not cross the road, perhaps in panic.” A social worker from the shelter had by then called the police, and their van arrived within minutes. In the next half hour, three police vehicles and an emergency ambulance rushed the thirteen injured men to various public hospitals. Next day, 36-year-old Ekraj died, and six other men battled long for their lives. If they pull through, many will be permanently disabled.

Who are these men, and why do they risk their lives sleeping on the pavements and road dividers of busy highways? Almost all are men who at some point in their lives came to Delhi to seek work to feed their families back in their village—old parents, siblings, wives and children. The work they found was casual, intermittent and so poorly paid that there would be nothing left to send back home if they hired a room for themselves. Therefore they chose the hard life of sleeping rough on the streets, so that their indigent families could survive.

In our work, we also encounter homeless men who fail to find even such low-end work regularly, and who save little to send home. Their self-esteem plummets, their bonds with their families fray and sometimes snap, and they gradually slip into a life of hard drugs, food charities, and occasional work in wedding parties or picking rags.

Around 4,000 of these lonely, destitute, homeless men have made Pushta—a raised embankment of the river Yamuna, adjacent to the Nigambodh cremation grounds—their home. Forced all day to watch burning corpses, the smoke from the bodies fills their lungs. It is only because this stretch of land is so inauspicious and inhospitable that the city has ceded it to the city’s dregs. Our shelters, and those run by other organizations, rapidly fill up every evening, and thousands of men still sleep in the open every night.

Homeless people explain why, especially in the summer and monsoon months, they choose to sleep so dangerously on pavements and road dividers.

Anywhere else, such as in parks or parking lots, sleep is almost impossible because of swarms of mosquitoes. The closer they lie near a highway, sleep becomes more feasible, because automobile fumes drive away mosquitoes. The stark fact is that these men risk their lives every day, and indeed critically damage their lungs with vehicle emissions, because it is the only way that they can sleep every night.

Three winters back, the Supreme Court concurred with a letter I wrote to the judges, and directed all state governments to establish sufficient numbers of well-serviced shelters for homeless men and women in all cities. In Delhi, the high court on its own issued similar directions to the Delhi government, and with the help of a public-spirited team, is monitoring the state’s efforts. Delhi has done more than most other states, and has established very basic temporary tin structures to serve as shelters. But these offer little dignity and rest to the destitute working men and women of the city. Other cities offer even less, with Mumbai the richest but most tightfisted municipal government in the country, refusing to establish any shelters. A city such as Patna has opened shelters occupied by rickshaw pullers, rag-pickers and daily wage workers, but these are so unsanitary that these are not fit even for animals.

These are men bravely batting the destitution of their families through hard and lonely labour – and women surviving extreme violence. What these recurring accidents—of wayward speeding vehicles driven by intoxicated men lurching onto pavements and road dividers killing and maiming sleeping homeless people—highlight most is our enormous social tolerance for a situation in which homeless persons are compelled to risk their lives and destroy their health each night only to be able to sleep a few hours.

The solutions are not so hard to find. They demand public-funded shelters for homeless men and women, and much more. Each city should construct large numbers of working men and women hostels, with inexpensive rooms and dormitories which make sleeping rough on the streets unnecessary; and invest in affordable rental and self-owned social housing. It is a commentary on our times that we are unwilling to make these small public investments. The lives of the poor cannot remain so dirt-cheap that they must risk dying each night only for a few hours of fitful sleep.

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