Despite decades of development positioning of the country as one of the world’s largest economies, homelessness is a still a crisis in India where wealth inequality is present in staggering proportions. In fact, India is the second most unequal country in the world. Its high rate of homelessness stands as a testament to this grim reality.
The Census of India 2011 defines 'houseless household' as, 'households who do not live in buildings or census houses but live in the open on roadside, pavements, under flyovers and staircases, or in the open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms, etc.’ Approximately four million people in India are homeless. Furthermore, the 2011 census pegged the number of people residing in urban slums at 65 million. Approximately one in six Indians who reside in cities live in unsanitary slums.
For India’s homeless, health vulnerabilities are far-reaching: the risk of violence, particularly sexual assault in the case of homeless women, often fatal exposure to the elements, and mental illness. To address the issue, the Supreme Court in 2012 directed that one homeless shelter for every 100,000 people should be built in every Indian city. 2013’s Shelters for the Urban Homeless initiative has reached 790 cities to provide basic amenities, legal aid and medical attention to the homeless. However, implementation issues and failure of authorities to spend funds have hampered its effect – to the extent that, in November 2017, it was reported that ninety percent of homeless people in India do not have access to sheltered accommodation.
The Indian government’s Housing For All scheme aims to make housing affordable for all Indians by 2022, with the construction of twenty million accommodations, primarily through tax incentives aimed at persuading the private sector to construct affordable housing. However, this has attracted criticism from UN special rapporteur Leilina Farha, who argues for a human rights approach. She notes that most homeless are from historically marginalized groups – lower castes, Muslims, and women – and says the government must address this social discrimination as well as provide guaranteed shelter for all who need it. By 2025, 42 percent of Indians will live in urban areas and eighteen million will be in need of low-income housing. Without their needs being addressed, the slum population and the number of those sleeping rough will increase.
In contrast to India, Japan boasts the lowest official numbers in the world. Official statistics record 7,500 homeless living in Japan, a country of over 126 million people. Japanese government initiatives including temporary housing provision and employment advice are praised for reducing the incidence of homelessness.
Based on the same temporary housing provision premise, the Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath (SAM:BKS) — a collective of over 25 civil society organizations, social movements, and homeless people’s groups working to promote the realisation of the human rights of Delhi’s homeless — presented a memorandum to Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) on behalf of Delhi’s homeless residents, including the following demands which can effectively help alleviate homelessness:
Enable homeless shelters to function as facilitation centers to provide identity and entitlement documents for the homeless, including ration cards, election/voter identity cards, and Aadhar cards; Equip homeless shelters to serve as resource centers for the homeless, and provide linkages with educational, livelihood, and health services, including hospitals, schools, and ‘anganwadis’/ICDS centers; Establish a consultative committee, as suggested in the DUSIB Act, to monitor conditions of all shelters; Conduct an immediate survey of the homeless population, with the active participation of homeless communities and civil society groups working with the homeless, in order to be able to better plan policy response and interventions; Provide sufficient shelters, based on the actual homeless population and as per Supreme Court orders and the requirements of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission – Scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless (NULM–SUH). The government should build more shelters in areas where there is need. Special shelters should be built for persons with mental illness, disabilities, chemical dependencies, and chronic illnesses. Separate shelters are also required for working men, single women, families, and survivors of violence, as per NULM–SUH norms; Conduct regular shelter audits, as recommended in NULM–SUH, with the active participation of homeless residents, independent institutions, and civil society; Ensure the safety and security of women and children by undertaking adequate measures, including the installation of CCTV cameras, building secure gates and boundary walls around shelters, ensuring the presence of women police officials at shelters, and providing secure toilets and bathrooms for women and children. Lockers should also be provided in all shelters; Ensure provisioning of food as per the NULM–SUH guidelines. Shelters for the highly vulnerable should provide free cooked food for their residents, while other shelters should aim 3 to provide food once a day at highly subsidized rates, and also provide space for cooking and storing food and cooking implements; Carry out training to build capacity of managers and shelter management agencies, so that they are equipped to deal with the challenges faced by the homeless community. Also ensure that working rights of caretakers and managers are not violated in any form. Pay at least minimum wages and provide a weekly day off to all shelter caretakers/managers.
Finally, move beyond shelters – The government should address structural causes of homelessness and work to provide durable solutions towards ensuring adequate, permanent housing for the homeless. This includes building linkages to housing schemes, developing social rental housing, and providing rehabilitation, life-skill and livelihood training for the homeless. Shelters are only the first step towards rehabilitation of the homeless on a continuum of housing rights.
Homelessness is a reflection of a country dogged by inequality and addressing their needs, their suffering, and their vulnerabilities will be a vital component of the country’s social development – one which, for a fair society, will need to keep up with economic growth.
Hamad, R. (2017). ‘Us and them”: What homelessness looks like around the world. Retrieved from here
Housing and Land Rights Network: Homelessness in India. Retrieved from here
Press Release: Homeless Residents of Delhi Celebrate World Homeless Day; Submit Memorandum to the Government with their Demands. (2017). Shahri Adhikar Manch: Begharon Ke Saath (Urban Rights Forum with the Homeless). Retrieved from here
Watts, K. (2019). Homelessness: An Indian Crisis. Retrieved from here