The night shelter at Panchsheel Garden in northeast Delhi is a blue porta-cabin—a portable steel-sheet construction, the likes of which have now replaced a few of the tents that earlier accommodated the city’s homeless populace. The signboard hanging on its thin front wall tells you that it is managed by a private security firm called Tulip Vista. The caretaker of this shelter, Dilraj Singh, sat inside on a cot while around him, wrapped in fetid blankets, 16 people dozed on the floor on slim rugs. They had each paid Rs 10 to spend the night here. In the far corner, drinking water was stored in a grubby plastic tank; the toilets outside were not functional; a doctor had not made a mandated visit in months and the first aid box contained nothing but a roll of cotton.
Singh lost his left leg in an accident years ago, but when I met him on the night of 30 October, his right leg was heavily bandaged as well. “A rat bit off my toe while I was sleeping here the night before,” he said, sitting on his cot. As we sat talking, a giant rat slowly emerged out of a nearby pile of blankets. The rodent stared at us, turned back slowly, and took unhurried steps back into the blankets. “He’d burst if he ran,” Singh joked, adding, in an unconcerned voice, “There are many of them around here.”
Tulip Vista was one of the nine shelter management agencies appointed by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) in November 2014. The cabin I was at, shelter number 146, was one of the 18 shelters that were run by the firm, for which it was allotted a sum of over Rs 32 lakh by DUSIB over the past year. Singh was promised Rs 8000 every month by Tulip Vista for being at the shelter at all hours of the day, everyday including holidays. But, he told me, he had not been paid for two months. The blankets, he added, get washed only once every few months.
The conditions of the shelters violate the guidelines of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (NULM), which mandate functioning washrooms and toilets; ventilated rooms; fully-stocked first-aid kits; mosquito repellants; regular medical visits; access to a kitchen with a gas connection; mattresses (with bed-sheets) and blankets that are regularly washed. According to the guidelines, there must also be three caretakers working in eight-hour shifts, and should be paid Rs 8000 each. But it would be unfair to single-out one shelter, or even one agency for that matter; this story of neglect was recurring almost everywhere else.
DUSIB took note on Friday, 6 November, as the temperature in the city began to dip. It served a notice to three of its agencies—all the private security firms—dismissing their two-year contract to manage the shelters. Stallion Security, Rakshak Securities and Tulip Vista were managing 71 shelters between them; which were kept in much the same conditions as the shelter at Panchsheel Garden. “We recently surveyed the shelters run by these agencies and the performance was not satisfactory,” a board member at DUSIB, who asked not to be named, told me. The need for a survey, it is crucial to note, was apparently not felt in the summers.
Among the many things that winters bring to Delhi is the seasonal concern for homeless people. When the callous wintry winds start to numb everyone’s fingertips, public consciousness about the plight of the homeless heightens. This is also reflected in political maneuverings. Already, there are three newly built night shelters in Yamuna Pusta standing locked. “They will be inaugurated soon by the chief minister,” the caretaker of a nearby shelter told me. The 200 shelters currently operational in the city are expected to swell to 300. During the last winter, that number peaked at 272. Many of these shelters are closed during the summer. As of now, spending the night at a shelter costs Rs 10 , but it will be free from 15 November onwards, which, according to the DUSIB calendar, is when winter begins.
This faddishness makes no sense to Sunil Kumar Aledia, who heads the Centre for Holistic Development (CHD)—a non-governmental organisation that works for the social inclusion of the homeless. Data sourced by Zonal Integrated Police Network and the Ministry of Home Affairs—compiled for CHD by Aledia—shows that 33,518 homeless people have died on the city’s streets since 2004. A month-wise tabulation of this data marks June as most lethal of the months, when 3,695 people died. In July, 3,251 deaths took place, and 3,100 in August. December and January saw 2,431 and 2,714 deaths, respectively. Both summers and monsoons have proven to be far more fatal for the homeless than winters.
“Perhaps it is the evocative imagery of people sleeping out in the bitter cold that explains this selective concern,” said Harsh Mander, director of the Centre for Equity Studies. But this evocative imagery has not just confounded the public; even the vision of successive governments has been framed by it. In January 2014, during his first stint as the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal had introduced porta-cabins as homeless shelters: a step up from the tents set up by the Congress government of the past, and a better shield against the winter chill. Come June, the steel-structures of these cabins started expanding in the already unbearable heat outside, creating stifling conditions inside forcing inhabitants out.
DUSIB itself admitted, in an affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court, that the “period of March to October of every year is a lean period for Night Shelters. During [this time], there is not much work involved.” It was during this “lean period” of 2014 that about 2000 homeless people died. This year, things were worse.
The porta-cabin near a cremation ground in Geeta Colony, shelter number 130, was maintained by Stallion. There was no source of light in the shelter except for a flickering candle. Here as well, toilets were closed because they had not been cleaned; the first-aid box stored gutkha—a powdered stimulant that is commonly chewed, similar to tobacco—and the caretaker, Shankar Lal, has not received his last month’s salary of Rs 5000. Lal works for 12 hours every day. When I visited the shelter, six people slept on rugs spread on the cemented floor. “Until July, we used to charge six rupees for a night, but since then the company has increased the rate to Rs 10,” Lal told me. Stallion received the contract of maintaining 13 shelters in northwest Delhi and received over Rs 23 lakhs for the same.
I heard the same stories in Yamuna Pusta, Daryaganj, and Nand Nagri. Caretakers said that they had not been paid, that basic facilities were lacking, that doctors do not visit, that the blankets needed washing, and that they did not know who to turn to. More than anything, they say that things were not this bad a few months ago. (Though the private companies were formally appointed last year, the rollout was slow. They only assumed control in the months that followed.)
Now, so as to remedy last year’s blunder, DUSIB has appointed 15 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to replace these firms. The NGOs were empanelled by a committee of activists who have worked on issues pertaining to homelessness in India. This process of empanelment is in stark contrast to the manner in which the private agencies were appointed in 2014, when tenders were simply put out. A set of rules, introduced last year, required the prospective agencies to have an annual turnover of at least Rs 10 lakh, with preference given to those whose turnover crossed Rs 30 lakh. Furthermore, these agencies were required to furnish Rs 15 lakh as security. “Only big, established NGOs or private companies could meet these requirements,” said Mander. “Almost all of the NGOs that were managing the shelters earlier, could not meet the requirements,” he added.
This was when the private security firms entered the picture. “The shelters were not in a good shape to begin with, they needed major improvements, but with the introduction of tenders, the standards started falling even lower,” said Aledia. Every Friday night, Aledia visits shelters in one part of the city or another.
With the cancellation of the contracts of private security companies, things are expected to go back to the way things were, under the care of various NGOs—however, they were not particularly good to begin with. What Mander calls “the ongoing disaster of homelessness” was indeed exacerbated by the entry of private enterprises, but some of those severe problems have persisted since much before. Aledia, too, remains skeptical. “Firstly, there will be a lot of time before the new agencies assume formal control,” he said, “but even when that happens, we will only go back to the way things were.”
“Delhi is the only city in the country that has had homeless shelters since Independence,” Mander, told me when I met him on the evening of 3 November. But until 2010, the number of night shelters in the city remained a single digit. That was when Mander wrote a letter to the Supreme Court drawing attention towards the issue of homelessness. “I sort of stretched my role as a Commissioner appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the Right to Food there,” he remembers, “and said that homeless people are dying because of malnourishment.” That letter started a spiralling effect. “The court ordered the Delhi government to take the issue seriously,” he told me, “by the end of that year, there were nearly 50 shelters in the city.” Soon, that number will be 300.
But this proliferation has been purely quantitative. I spent the last two nights of October in and around a dozen shelters—they were all considerably empty. Even though the cold had started to cut through my shirt, people preferred sleeping out in the open. The lack of enthusiasm for DUSIB’s shelters among the homeless had been the most glaring flaw in the government’s policy even before the private firms came in as shelter management agencies.
People occupy pavements, construction sites, footbridges, sidewalks, cement pipes, underpasses and even lane dividers. All those who can, cook food at these locations—a luxury they cannot afford at the shelters. Buying a meal is out of the question. Rickshaw drivers usually sleep in their rickshaws, fearing it might be stolen while they rest. Those that own a cart make a bed out of it. Almost everyone I spoke to saw no sense in paying Rs 10 rupees for the night shelter, though there were many who did not have the money to make that choice. Reasons for this reluctance varied. Some said they do not want to go because things are not much better inside; a few told me that they were refused entry because of being “too dirty”; a group of three men curled up on the pavement of Old Delhi Railway Station said the caretaker had beaten them with a stick for talking too loud, so they never went back.
Another problem that remains is that if all these people started coming to homeless shelters, DUSIB would find it impossible to accommodate them. As per the Delhi Master Plan for 2021, nearly 19,37,520 square feet of space is required in the capital to provide shelter for its homeless; DUSIB has only 2,44,507 square feet—or 12 percent of the required space. Currently, the shelters can accommodate, according to DUSIB, approximately 19,000 people. “They have failed, or have turned a blind eye, to assess the bulge of homeless people in the city,” said Aledia. The number of homeless people, Mander believes, is close to 180,000 people—one percent of the city’s population; DUSIB puts the number around 15,000. “Since many of these people do not even have an identity card, it is hard to put a real number on them. They exist as an invisible mass,” said Mander. But anyone who has roamed around the city in the night would attest that far more than 15,000 people sleep on Delhi’s streets every night. “To get these people inside the shelters, good examples need to be set,” Mander told me, adding, “but the manner in which the government—first Congress and now AAP—has handled this is very, very shameful.”