Nights without end
Rain, or night in Hindi, and basera, or shelter. By themselves, each word is potent with poetry. Together, however, they signify either impermanance – as in the song Jhootha jag rain basera – or the squalour of government night shelters. In fact, many homeless prefer to sleep on footpaths and medians. Women avoid them because there is no safety for themselves or their children. Goons often drag away women or children and everyone just looks away. In summers, they provide no comfort as the walls radiate heat. In many, there are no coolers or fans. Or even drinking water. Perhaps the only time the homeless make a beeline for these shelters is winter. When the bitter cold of Delhi gets too much. When a louse-ridden blanket is better than none. Says Ashish, a ragpicker, “During summer, the portacabins, made of steel, aluminium or plastic, get heated during the day, and release the heat at night. It becomes impossible, and since there are lots of people inside, sweaty and humid too. Coolers stop working anytime. One can’t live there.” Five years back, a caretaker at a night shelter beat Ashish with a stick because he turned up drunk. Next day, Ashish was asked to clean up his spot and refused. The caretaker did not allow him in. “Since then, I’ve never slept at any night shelter,” he says. The whole approach to night shelters is wrong, feels Indu Prakash Singh, a longtime activist for the homeless and a member of the supreme court-appointed monitoring committee for night shelters. “Generally, contracts to run night shelters go to security agencies and the like. They work by a business model, not a service model,” he says. “The government and bureaucracy need to understand that what the homeless need is respect, care, some affection. They need sensitive agencies, not guards.” The model Singh suggests is a “qualitycost based system”: the contract shouldn’t go to the lowest bidder but to the one who will provide the best quality at a moderate price. “In the supreme court, we have said that when organisations are chosen to run night shelters, 80 percent of marks should be on their record of working with the homeless, 20 percent should be cost-based,” he says. “Moreover, no company should be given contracts for more than 30 shelters. We understand that people do not want to sleep at night shelters because they are badly run, but a few NGOS, like Mahila Pragati March and Ashray Adhikar Abhiyaan, have performed well. Their night shelters are overcrowded!” Singh gives some interesting figures: the total shelter space in the capital is three lakh square feet, while according to the the Delhi housing scheme itself, it should be 19 lakh square feet. “According to the supreme court, there should be one shelter for every one lakh people, across the country,” he says. Of those who die homeless and identityless, he says, “In middle class homes these days, every member has a birth certificate, a ration card, a voter ID, a PAN card, an Aadhaar card and many more, perhaps. It’s a shame that there are a few who are born without any ID and die without any.” In 70 years since independence, he says, governments have failed to reach the last person in the line. Though every leader claims to be standing with that last person.