Over the past three weeks, 116 people have died in India due to a cold wave sweeping the north. Uttar Pradesh (UP) claims the most casualties with 90 deaths. The temperature has dropped below 37°F, which in combination with the frigid winds sweeping the state from the Himalayas, has tragic consequences for both slum-dwellers and on the homeless. UP is one of India’s poorest states and almost 36 million of its people are homeless, according to the state government. To combat the cold, the UP government has arranged for 3,500 bonfires to be lit throughout the night at major intersections, and bus and railway stations. Although a temporary solution, this recent spate of weather-related deaths has highlighted the larger issue of how effective state governments are at addressing homelessness.
Since independence in 1947, India’s state governments have a seemingly indifferent attitude towards poor urban residents. The homeless are at the fringes of society and are treated as such. The onus of survival then falls onto India’s homeless themselves since state attitudes do not fully acknowledge their basic human rights.
In the winter straddling 2009 and 2010, however, the Delhi government demolished one of the few homeless shelters it provided at the time and, as a result, a young balloon seller died. After the lobbying efforts by citizenry and the media, the Supreme Court ordered the government to organize more night shelters in Delhi. In just two days, the government was able to set up more homeless shelters than it had in all the years since 1947. The New Delhi Municipal Council and Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) has budgeted US$182,000 for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2011, to add shelters and help maintain the current 64 permanent shelters serving 9,000 people.
The Supreme Court has gone a step further by instructing all Indian states to establish permanent homeless shelters in all major cities. According to the court mandate, shelters have to handle sufficient numbers of city homeless populations, and be equipped with clean water, adequate sanitation, nutritious food sources, and health services. Most states do not have a department dedicated to the urban homeless and were unsure of how to proceed. States such as Gujarat and Maharashtra made infrastructural arguments as to why homeless shelters could not be set up, whereas other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu assured the Supreme Court that the directive would be obeyed. However, by December 2010, few homeless shelters have been established by these state governments.
At the end of December 2010, the UP government directed all its districts to set up night shelters for the homeless. In the city of Lucknow alone, over 2,000 people have no shelter from the cold. And the weather-related deaths demonstrate that not enough is being done. Only 25 night shelters and bonfires have been set up at 100 places in Lucknow. The UP Human Rights Commission (UPHRC) has submitted notices to members of the local Lucknow government to take appropriate action in efforts to protect the homeless in the winter. Currently, the lack of provisions made for the homeless is deemed unconstitutional: Article 21 of the Indian Constitution protects the “right to life” for people like migrant laborers and rickshaw-pullers who take shelter in bus stations, train platforms, temple compounds, open markets, under flyovers and in trees. The government must submit a report to the UPHRC by January 16th on actions that have been taken so far. To what extent Lucknow and other major cities in India decide to grapple with the homelessness issue in tandem with efficient urban planning is yet to be seen.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.