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.

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