Millennium Post (Kolkata)

Caring for the homeless

In line with internatio­nal practices, the government­s, civil society, NGOs and charities in India must work in tandem to free the country from the clutches of homelessne­ss

- KDP RAO The writer is a former Addl. Chief Secretary of Chhattisga­rh. Views expressed are personal

Despite a number of social welfare schemes launched over the years, the increasing number of homeless people in the country appears to challenge our claims of inclusive growth. We often tend to treat homelessne­ss as a part of the general narrative of poverty and, consequent­ly, miss out on the intricacie­s involved in addressing the problem. Homelessne­ss is a state of outright condemnati­on of human beings to destitutio­n, depriving them of human rights including dignity of life, a situation much worse than serving a prison sentence or even living in a detention camp. The reasons for homelessne­ss are multifario­us; poverty, rural to urban migration, estrangeme­nt of families, child abuse, crimes against women and marginalis­ed sections, and human traffickin­g are most prominent among them. The consequenc­es may vary from starvation and denial of healthcare to physical violence and abuse of women and children. Homelessne­ss stigmatise­s the society, reflecting our failure in carrying out social responsibi­lity even after seven decades of independen­ce.

Though Census 2011 estimated around 17.7 lakh people as homeless (0.15 per cent of the country’s total population), the real figure as of today could be much higher. While the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs estimated the figure to be about 24 lakhs, Supreme Court-appointed Commission­ers have arrived at a figure of around 37 lakhs (one per cent of urban population). The pandemic has, apparently, contribute­d to a further increase in the number of homeless persons. Currently, no data is available, either from Census 2011-21 or from any survey, making it difficult to fathom the magnitude of the problem. Neverthele­ss, sentiments cannot be subjected to the scrutiny of numbers, especially when even animals are cared for by the State and society.

Homelessne­ss is distinct in character. While the UDHR defines ‘homelessne­ss’ as a situation where people do not have a regular residence due to lack of ability, a more practical definition is given by the Indian Census which categorise­s

homeless people as those who live on pavements, roadsides, railway platforms, staircases, temples, streets, in pipes, or at other open spaces. The homeless are basically broken people, including both young and old, women, physically disabled, teenagers and children. Homeless youth and children need to be mainstream­ed, and the elderly sheltered in old age homes to live their remaining lives in peace with dignity.

In India, efforts to address homelessne­ss were insignific­ant until the eighth plan (1992-97) when, for the first time, the ‘Footpath Dwellers Night Shelter Scheme’ (NSS) was rolled out. The 10th Plan suggested encouragin­g NGOs to create homes for the homeless. The 12th plan emphasised the need for providing night shelters for beggars and the aged. In urban areas, HUDCO’s policy of night shelters for the homeless in 1988-89 was discontinu­ed due to budgetary constraint­s. It was only in the JNNURM in 2005 that the official commitment to build shelters with basic amenities was made. However, the report by the Commission­ers of the Supreme Court in 2010 presented a pathetic picture

of such shelters. The shelters for urban homeless (SUHs), a sub-scheme under Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihood­s Mission (DAY-NULM), has only been a partial success. As per the official data, as of September 2022, only 2,462 shelters were built for a total of 1,24,498 homeless. While 1,417 (58 per cent) have management committees, only 1,096 (44.5 per cent) of them have trained personnel. Though the PMAY is a successful national programme today, the last level of beneficiar­ies it reaches out to is only the EWS; the real ‘homeless’ under discussion do not even qualify as beneficiar­ies under this scheme. With barely 3 per cent of them having identity proofs, the homeless as a class are excluded from almost all welfare schemes.

In stark contrast, the approach by European countries to address homelessne­ss is one of collective political mobilisati­on combined with public support. It worked as a motor force in successful­ly reducing homelessne­ss in European countries. It is reported (www.europenowj­ that while Spain had developed a comprehens­ive

plan to reduce homelessne­ss by 2020, France in 2017 targeted homelessne­ss in the migrant population, and Germany in 2021 vowed to end homelessne­ss by 2030. Denmark rolled out a programme to eradicate long-term homelessne­ss by providing affordable housing. Prince William announced a five-year campaign to end long-term homelessne­ss in the UK. Finland’s successful ‘Housing First’ policy bestowed the distinctio­n on the country as the only country in Europe with zero homelessne­ss. The policy has a combinatio­n of financial assistance, integrated support services, and an abundant supply of housing. The government has partnered with nonprofit organisati­ons such as the Y-foundation with a vow to end homelessne­ss by 2027.

Secondly, NGOs in Europe played a predominan­t role in galvanisin­g the concerned actors, especially the political class, towards addressing the issues. For example, in Switzerlan­d, charities played a catalyst in sensitisin­g the media in support of the homeless. Mounting pressure from NGOs in Europe was instrument­al in launching the “European Platform

on Combating Homelessne­ss” in 2021 in Lisbon by the EU. It is a collective forum for the European Parliament, the Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of Regions, and various civil society partners to work together to eradicate homelessne­ss by providing various services and support systems.

The fundamenta­l right under Article 21 of the Indian Constituti­on is a negative right as it merely guarantees that life and liberty of people can only be taken away ‘according to procedure establishe­d by law’, but it doesn’t elucidate as to what life and liberty are in the first place. In the case of the homeless people, their miserable socioecono­mic existence makes the ‘Right’ meaningles­s, much before the theoretica­l ‘Law or Procedure’ steps in to take it away. The Supreme court in Francis Coralie Mullin vs The Administra­tor, Union Territory of Delhi and Others observed that “the right to life includes the right to live with human dignity and all that goes along with it, namely, adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter and facilities for reading, writing and expressing oneself in diverse forms, freely moving about and mixing and comminglin­g with fellow human beings”. This observatio­n of the Apex Court should serve as a guiding light for our policies aimed at uplifting the homeless people.

Most homeless people have neither a permanent place of stay nor are they registered as voters in a constituen­cy; and, as such, they have zero political relevance. Unsurprisi­ngly, election manifestos hardly contain any promises for the homeless. The issue of homelessne­ss is not just about a roof over the head but encompasse­s a wide array of social, economic and cultural aspects, which calls for a comprehens­ive approach, just as followed in European countries. It is imperative that the State, civil society, NGOs and charities must work together in tandem to keep the homeless people from starvation and help them live with dignity. Mainstream media and social media can help generate awareness in this regard.

Homelessne­ss is a state of outright condemnati­on of human beings to destitutio­n, depriving them of basic human rights including dignity of life

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 ?? ?? The issue of homelessne­ss is not just about a roof over the head but encompasse­s a wide array of social, economic and cultural aspects
The issue of homelessne­ss is not just about a roof over the head but encompasse­s a wide array of social, economic and cultural aspects

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