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The struggles of the homeless for identity, dignity and rights in Bhopal

By , March 30, 2021December 20th, 2023No Comments

With growing urbanisation, cities are no longer just industrial centres but hubs of education, health, employment, prosperity, reflecting modern lifestyles. With rapid urbanisation, the divide between the rich and the poor has exponentially increased. This has also created separate cities of formal and informal housing.

Homeless persons, engaged in different forms of informal labour, constitute a significant percentage of the population who occupy informal housing in the country. According to Census 2011, homeless refers to a person, family or group of people who live in a roofless dwelling on a roadside, or pavement, public place such as a bus stand, railway station, religious sites, etc. or in the open. Every year 10 October is observed as World Homeless Day to draw more attention to the needs and demands of the homeless. With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the condition of the homeless turned more dire in the past few months.

Access to Shelters for the Homeless in Bhopal

According to Census 2011, the homeless population in Madhya Pradesh is around 37,000. Being a centre of urban development in the state, Bhopal has a very high homeless population. Social organisations and movements working with the homeless estimate their real numbers in the city to be much higher than official figures. Mainly, the homeless in the city constitute the migrant workers coming to Bhopal for employment, to seek healthcare, etc. The homeless are mainly found at railway stations, bus stands, government hospitals, at temples and mosques, on footpaths, pavements and other construction sites as well as on flyovers, etc.

There is discrepancy in the number of homeless shelters in the state and city, even in official records. According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, in 2019 there were 862 shelter homes across the country, out of which 25 are in Madhya Pradesh. The (NULM) website mentions 2,365 shelter homes in the country, of which 132 are in Madhya Pradesh, though most of them are either proposed or under construction. As per the Bhopal Municipal Corporation Annual Report 2019, the number of shelter homes for the homeless in Bhopal is 15.

According to the order passed by the Supreme Court in 2010, it is necessary to have a shelter for the urban homeless for every 100 persons per 1 lakh population in the country. By this calculation, given that the urban population of Madhya Pradesh is 2,00,69,405 as per Census 2011, the state should have at least 201 shelter homes for 100 persons each. Even with this estimate, it would only accommodate 20,100 people in the state, which is just over half the total homeless population as documented by the government. In the current scenario, however, there are only 25 shelter homes in the state, that is eight times less than the prescribed limit.

Talking about Bhopal, the population of the city is around 18 lakhs, that is, there should be at least 18 shelter homes with a capacity of 100 each, but the reality is that there are 15 shelter homes, and only 5 of them run regularly and smoothly.

Supreme Court Order and National Urban Livelihoods Mission Guidelines for the homeless

In 2010, the Supreme Court while advocating for the right to housing of the homeless said that everyone has the right to life as per Article 21 of the Constitution. For this reason, a permanent shelter home should be provided for all the homeless people, which should have all the appropriate facilities. This was followed by the launch of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM) in 2013, which had a component, Shelter for Urban Homeless, outlining necessary steps for facilities, provision and access to basic housing for the urban homeless.

The component outlined a permanent shelter home for 100 people per lakh population, with four different types of shelters, for women, men, families and special sections. The shelters should be accessible to all homeless people who arrive there, and no admission process is needed for admitting them. The scheme guidelines also mentioned that the homeless people living in shelters should be provided with important identity and legal documents at the same address, and efforts should be made to link the homeless with skill development and livelihood opportunities. The Supreme Court order also made a provision for a state-level shelter management commission which had to be chaired by a retired IAS officer. In the case of Madhya Pradesh, this commission has not met since May 2018, the post of chairman has been vacant since March 2019 and the commission has actually not considered the recommendations by the member representatives.

Status of Shelter homes for the Urban Homeless: Findings of our Short Survey

YUVA organised a sample survey of 10 of 15 shelter homes run by Bhopal Municipal Corporation. The team from YUVA visited the shelters between 29 September 2020 and 8 October 2020. During our visit, we found only one shelter home to be open and it was operational only for the night, others were closed due to the prevailing pandemic situation. The main findings which emerged from our survey are as follows:

Missing types of shelter homes: Among the 10 shelter homes surveyed, although only one was open and functioned in a temporary capacity, the remaining nine which were shut are permanent shelter homes. Five shelter homes were only for men, four were for both men and women, and one was a special shelter for patients. According to the guidelines of the Shelter for Urban Homeless, family and special shelter houses should also be built in which rehabilitation centres for single women and their dependents, for the children, elderly, disabled, drug addicts, mentally ill persons, should be included but there are no such special shelter homes currently in Bhopal leaving many homeless in need.

Limited operating hours: All the shelter homes we surveyed operate only at night whereas NULM guidelines state that the shelters should be operational 24×7.

No free entry — the admission process: NULM guidelines state that the shelters should accommodate any homeless persons who approach this facility. However, the shelter homes surveyed run an admission process. They ask the homeless to furnish an identity proof (such as Aadhaar card, voter ID, etc). If the homeless do not have one they have to get permission from the police, and if that is also not an option then they are not admitted to the shelter home. This is in clear contravention of the guidelines.

Additional charges at shelter homes: In contrast to the guidelines which state that the shelter home is to be accessed for free and the homeless need to pay for the food at the subsidised rate, the shelter homes surveyed charge INR 10–15 for admission and Rs 5 per person per night. The fee for toilet and bathroom usage is charged separately. Although toilets should be attached with the shelter homes, a separate toilet complex managed and run by private organisations is often used by inmates of shelter homes by paying INR 5–10.

No linkage to entitlements and social security: Additionally, the shelter homes do not help the homeless access legal entitlements and social security benefits. As per the NULM guidelines ‘Shelters will be a space for convergence and provisions of various entitlements of social security, food, education and health care systems. All homeless persons in shelters should be given priority under various schemes, and government programmes.’ But in reality no shelter home in Bhopal is doing so. No homeless persons in different shelter homes are linked with schemes nor are they provided any legal documents in the form of Aadhaar Card, Voter ID, etc. Neither do the shelter homes provide any counselling facilities, although they are required to.

No publicity of shelter facilities: None of the shelter homes surveyed made any efforts to spread awareness about their facilities via advertisements and other means. Additionally, those who approached the shelter were often unable to access the facilities, since they did not have any legal entitlements, although this is in contravention of the NULM guidelines.

Findings from the night vigil

After four months of survey and submitting the report of the same to NULM officials in Bhopal Municipal Corporation, we organised a night vigil on 14 January 2021 to observe and understand the situation of homeless people sleeping in the open as well as shelter homes. During the vigil, we formed a team of nine people, consisting of representatives from other organisations and campaigns too. This vigil was conducted between Nilam Park near YUVA’s office to Nadra bus stand covering a distance of about four km. We counted more than 200 homeless people sleeping in the open on footpaths, bus stops, parks and outside shops which were closed, when the night temperature was below 10 degrees Celsius.

We also visited two shelter homes, Shahjahani Park Shelter Home and Nadra Bus Stand Shelter Home to observe the situation and availability of services there. We got to know that about 62 men and 32 women were sleeping in the former home and 18 in the latter. Even after COVID restrictions and notifications to follow physical distancing all the mattresses and beds were joined to each other in the first shelter home for men.

We then enquired about some important issues like process of admission, access to food, toilets, locker to keep luggage, duration of stay and linkage with social security and welfare schemes etc. The process of admission is similar to what noted during our survey where any one coming to shelter homes for accommodation has to provide an identity card for admission, food is provided at a subsidised rate, toilet services are provided through a slip in the attached complexes and a locker is provided to the homeless persons.

The Nadra Bus Stand shelter home closes after 11 pm and there is no admission after that, even when shelter homes are supposed to be operational round-the-clock. The Shahjahani Park shelter home does not have any closing time but the accommodation capacity is reached quickly in the evening and most of the homeless end up sleeping outside near this shelter home.

We also talked to many homeless people sleeping and residing in the open. They had very limited resources to manage in the winters. They also had no provision of food from the government. Homeless people mentioned how they are dependent on samaritan groups in cities for food, also their safety and security is a major concern as they face regular harassment from police as well local people. Women on footpaths complained of harassment from men at night.

The most important issue that homeless people face is lack of identity and dignity. Most of the homeless sleeping outside had no legal document with them, because of which they do not get work, nor do they get any admission in shelter homes. In a recently concluded consultation organised by YUVA, the NULM officer from Bhopal Municipal Corporation admitted this issue and said that the provision of legal identity to the homeless is an important part of working with the homeless and it should be implemented.

Budgetary allocations for the homeless

For the last 3 years, the budget of the Bhopal Municipal Corporation with regards to the ‘maintenance’ and ‘construction’ of shelter homes for the homeless looks questionable. For maintenance and construction in 2017–18, the provision of INR 30 lakh and INR 4.10 lakh was made respectively which was later reduced to INR 1.59 lakh and INR 0.00 lakh as per the actual budget. Similarity, the budget of 2018–19 sanctioned INR 30 lakh and INR 14.10 lakh, which was then changed to the actual figure of INR 6.50 lakh and INR 4.10 lakh, respectively. In 2019–20 and 2020–21, the budget has been fixed at only INR 11.50 lakh and INR 30 lakh, respectively.

It is worth reflecting on why there is such a difference in the budget estimate, revised, sanctioned and actual realisation in the municipal budget for 5 years respectively, and this difference is the same every year, mainly with the construction of new shelter homes. The situation of the homeless in the municipal budget is worrisome, and also because at the same time more than thousands of lakhs are approved every year under the ‘Housing for All Scheme’ while there is no change in the budget for the maintenance of the shelter homes and accommodation of the homeless, nor is there any systematic account of the expenditure.

They are Homeless, but Humans, and most importantly Citizens

It is also necessary to understand that beyond the Supreme Court order, the central government scheme and the movements going on over the years for the right to housing of the homeless, much more needs to be done. The right to housing must originate from the shelter home, but it should progressively include linkages to different government schemes and benefits and pave the way for access to safe and suitable housing.

As in other Indian cities, in Bhopal too, the homeless do not have their statutory documents and there are many cases in which they are not allowed to enter the shelter home because of this reason. This is completely a violation of the NULM guidelines, which state that the documents of homeless people living in shelter homes should be made at the address of the shelter home itself.

The homeless are often discriminated against and continue to face a range of violations. It is important to uphold their rights in the city, and help them live with dignity and respect.

Ankit Jha and Ashish Raghuvanshi — YUVA

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