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Lakhs of homeless Indians are not getting any lockdown relief. This is how it can be fixed.
Only a handful of states have arranged food provisions, healthcare and sanitation facilities for the homeless.
Some 1.77 million Indians are homeless, but an analysis of states’ circulars regarding provision of lockdown relief for the poor issued between March 9 and May 3, shows that 16 states with 40% of the country’s homeless make no mention of them at all. Only Delhi, Maharashtra and Kerala talk about regular health checks and safety provisions for the homeless.
With no money and no documents to help them access relief measures related to food, health, water, sanitation, shelter and livelihood, the homeless have become the most vulnerable to the immediate impact and aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis, the analysis shows.
Hundreds of government circulars related to Covid-19 relief have been issued so far. The 28 states and one Union Territory, Delhi, that we analysed have been announcing orders almost every day. But this analysis, by the Indo Global Social Service Society, a non-profit working on sustainable livelihood, focussed only on those relating to the homeless.
As many as 16 states make no mention whatsoever of the homeless in their circulars, we found. These are Assam, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Punjab, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal. Of these states, Punjab, Haryana, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat are together home to 40% of India’s homeless people, according to the 2011 census.
States such as Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal have ensured the provision of food for ration-card holders under two heads: the Antyodaya Anna Yojana, where households are identified as per the Centre’s criteria, and Priority HouseHold scheme as per state guidelines. Of these, the homeless might only benefit from the provision of the former, which includes provisions for “destitutes”.
There are mentions of food provisions for the homeless in the circulars issued by Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Tripura. The provision of cooked meals is critical because a lot of shelters do not have kitchens. Currently, some shelters offer dry rations and others, cooked food.
“In the upcoming six months, the livelihood situation among the homeless is going to be very difficult,” said Brijesh Arya of Maharashtra Beghar Abhiyan, a collective working for the homeless in the state. “Most homeless people are domestic workers and daily-wage labourers. Even after the lockdown, they may not have a livelihood. Then the monsoon will arrive.”
The water crisis is acute for the homeless and given the poor quality of food they consume, they are vulnerable to disease, said Arya.
Health and sanitation
As of May 3, only the Maharashtra and Delhi governments have talked about regular health checks for the homeless. Similarly, only Kerala mentions bringing the homeless under safety net provisions.
The only states even talking of providing basic sanitation facilities such as sanitisers, hand-wash and face masks were Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Maharashtra also mentioned the need for adequate water supply in the shelters, as did Kerala, but only as a general measure.
Only the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, and Maharashtra mentioned running awareness campaigns on Covid-19 for the homeless.
Fourteen states have released circulars prioritising pension funds, cash relief and social security measures, stating that all eligible below-poverty-line families would receive about Rs 1,000 pension fund/cash relief or other forms of social security such as no job termination during the lockdown. But the procedures to avail of these may not benefit the homeless because of lack of documentation.
While census 2011 figures put the number of homeless in India at 1.77 million, civil society organisations estimate that the actual number may well be over 3 million.
The Indo Global Social Service Society, as an advocacy for the rights of the urban homeless, conducted a survey in May 2019 across Bihar, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu to study the problems of the homeless. It tried to figure out exactly who the homeless are and to unfold the status of various factors related to their lives – services, entitlements, government policies, access to shelter, violence and challenges specific to women.
Almost 80% of the homeless belonged to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes, and 60% were born in the city where they were surveyed, indicating an intergenerational cycle of poverty. The survey covered 4,382 people across 15 cities. The exercise was mostly executed in the evenings and at night to ensure that only the homeless were captured in the survey.
Around 41.6% of the homeless have no access to any sort of health services, even though 45% of the homeless live within one km of a clinic/hospital, as per the 2019 survey. The problem is especially acute for homeless women who have malnutrition and various other diseases, mental health issues and risky pregnancies. With hospitals overburdened with Covid-19, the issue of accessibility is likely to be worse now.
Then there is the question of access to food or, more specifically, ration through the public distribution system. Only 18% of the homeless could avail of ration through PDS benefits and for them, especially the women and children, there exists a barrier in securing a healthy and nutritional diet.
“I have only been eating khichdi since the lockdown began because that is all I get in my food kit,” Ramu Bhai, a basket-maker from Mount Abu who works in Mahim, Mumbai, told the Indo Global Social Service Society over the phone on April 20. “But I have to survive so I make do with it.”
As of May 3, no state has mentioned either livelihood restoration or provision of any financial assistance for the homeless in the circulars analysed. Livelihood for the homeless is inextricably linked to the recovery of the informal sector, which forms a major chunk of the Indian economy.
Plan of action
Why are the homeless ignored by all sections of the government? The reason is their invisibility, say experts. “Covid-19 has exacerbated the vulnerabilities of the urban homeless communities and there has been no specific intervention for the urban homeless because of their invisibility,” said Vanessa Peter, a housing rights activist from Chennai who works with the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities. “Inadequate information about the homeless population and its multi-dimensional socio-economic vulnerabilities is also a contributing factor.”
What kind of strategies can help the homeless deal with the crisis being created by the pandemic and the lockdown? Indo Global Social Service Society spoke to activists and scholars from organisations that deal with employment, human settlement and marginalised communities to come up with specific recommendations for the short, medium and long term.
Universal provision of nutritional cooked food for six months: Many shelters do not have cooking facilities or have limited capacity during the lockdown. Additional feeding centres should be set up near shelters and food delivery should go beyond known clusters and shelters.
Universal provision of public distribution systems, with dry ration for six months: Some states have notified the provision of food to daily-wage earners. In some cases, the homeless have to travel far to access the food and are not allowed by the police. Those who choose to cook should be given dry rations.
Revise the circulars for clarity on sanitation facilities: States talk of sanitation facilities for shelters but offer no clarity on who will be responsible for cleaning or washing. At the very least, masks, soaps and sanitisers should be provided to everyone.
Provision of quarantine, regular medical checks at shelters and hotspots: Some homeless with Covid-19 symptoms have been quarantined on the streets. They should be shifted to government quarantine centres and equipped with facilities, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines. Currently, the states only mention providing medical kits.
Provision of temporary shelters: It is critical that numerous homeless shelters of temporary nature be set up to accommodate the homeless living in crowded shelters.
Provision of water and basic services: There are reports of the homeless living in the open having to pay toilet access charges. At many communities and clusters, water is not provided. Access to public toilets should be made free and water provided.
Medium-term measures, to be followed over the next two months:
Provision of adequate shelters: Shelters should be provided for the homeless as per National Urban Livelihood Mission guidelines. The distance between the beds should allow social distancing. States should also pass orders to identify new shelters.
Provision of immediate psycho-social counselling support: The homeless have always been victims of violence and harassment. The pandemic would impact them even more acutely. States should offer them psycho-social counselling support.
Specific focus on homeless families and women: Homeless women and children are highly vulnerable groups. Children should be provided nutritious food and women connected with police helplines and the women and children welfare department.
Address livelihood restoration, financial assistance: Non-payment of wages and the collapse of the informal economy severely affected homeless wage earners. They should be included in safety nets, provided financial aid, especially those with special needs such as women with dependent children, and the elderly. Shelters can be turned into self-help groups and training initiated.
Long-term measures, to be followed over next six months:
Allocation of more resources, development of an action plan under the National Urban Livelihood Mission: Increased allocation of resources will help set up more shelters and further the livelihood/training that the Shelter for Urban Homeless should pursue. Also, use this as an opportunity to re-think National Urban Livelihood Mission Shelter for Urban Homeless guidelines to include disasters.
Review state, national disaster management plans: Include homelessness in disaster management practices, laws and guidelines and ensure standard operating procedures on handling the crisis of the homelessness during disasters.
Formulate policy for homelessness: The Ministry of Urban and Housing Affairs should work on a draft policy like Rajasthan. This can be further linked to housing and other urban development schemes