Winter Woes: For Indian homeless, life's a cruel joke

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For many a years, his frail body braved rain and shine under the open sky of New Delhi. Like a true soldier he fought handsomely the pangs of hunger. Finally, last Sunday he surrendered to the adversaries of life. Raghu, a migrant labour from Bihar died on the streets of national capital.

The homeless rickshaw puller was around 50. A friend of Raghu, Arshad who shared the same footpath with him near Nehru Place flyover in south Delhi for several years said, "How long a body can withstand the vagaries of weather without a roof over its head? Moreover, hungry stomach is always a defeated soul."

Arshad, a homeless daily-wage earner is praying hard that he survives this harsh winter. Like Arshad,  millions of homeless in national capital and rest of India are battling hard to overcome the "nightmares" of winter times. Winter is a "test of survival" for homeless in India.

Country for homeless

Statistics say there are around 78 million people who are homeless in India. Activists working to rehabilitate destitute say, "homelessness in India has been a problem for centuries."

People living, eating and sleeping on the streets is a regular site in India. Millions of poor who cannot afford to buy a roof over their head end up on the footpaths and flyovers of flourishing metros of India. They are elderly people, physically and mentally challenged, flood and drought victims. Even women, children and unemployed youths embrace the footpath as shelter.

A member of Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a voluntary organisation, which works for the homeless people on Bangalore's pavements said, "life on the streets is fraught with many dangers."

"Horror stories ranging from acid attacks, sexual abuse, police and goon atrocities to regular fights for two square meals, Bangalore's homeless population, who have no roofs over their heads, are leading a hellish life," added the member.

Problems of homeless across India are similar. But, winter is the most cruelest of all seasons for them. With dipping temperature and no warm clothes to protect them from the chill, thousands of homeless die every winter in India. This winter is no different. Officials figures show more than 100 people (mostly homeless) have died in Uttar Pradesh alone. Experts fear thousands have died across India.

"Unfortunately most of the cases go unreported. Who has the time to think about homeless. It seems government is happy if poor and homeless people die. It is the easiest way to get rid of the problem," said an activist, who did not wish to be named.

Government run shelter homes for destitute exist in every city, but the rush is too much to accommodate millions of homeless. Moreover, many rue the fact that shelter homes (mostly for night accommodation) are not easily accessible for them. "I have to spend around Rs 20 in bus to reach the nearest shelter home. I cannot afford the money," said Shalini, a street hawker in New Delhi.

Most of the shelter homes are over-crowded and lack basic hygiene. "It is better I sleep on the pavements. If I stay in a shelter home, I will definitely get infected by one or other diseases," said another homeless from Delhi.

"Over three lakh people in Delhi live on streets braving extreme weather, economic hardship and government apathy. Though there are arrangements of night shelters for homeless people, many don't prefer going there citing the transport cost involved in reaching the shelters. There are others who allege that police isn't sensitive towards them and abuse them," says a report of CNN-IBN.

A large number of migrants (mostly from rural areas) seeking job opportunities in urban India are becoming part of ever increasing homeless population. Many non-governmental organisations are working to rehabilitate the homeless. But, their effort is not enough, as the problem is huge, with rapidly increasing homeless population across India.

Sadly, government has no time for homeless in India. A powerful legislation can change the plight of homeless.

Figures state shocking realities. "About 78 million people in India live in slums and tenements. 17% of the world's slum dwellers reside in India - making 170 million people almost homeless. Up to 7% of homeless people in the major city of New Delhi are women. More than three million men and women are homeless in India's capital city; the same population in Canada would make up approximately 30 electoral districts."

For many of us homelessness is an idea, a nightmare, but ask those who live on the streets of urban India. They will whisper it to you, "My mate, life is a cruel joke."

Those who want to help homeless in time of their need you can contact following organisations and individuals.

1. To join the blanket drive among homeless in New Delhi, contact Rahul and Tulika at 09818131771.

2. Those who want to help those outside hospitals in the cold with blankets, go onto http://udayfoundationindia.org

3. Be a volunteer with Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS). IGSSS works with homeless in 17 states. Contact them at http://www.igsss.org/

4. Contact Goonj at http://goonj.org/. Goonj helps poor people with clothes.

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