Kusum sits braiding her daughter’s hair beneath a busy overpass in Nizamuddin, a south Delhi neighborhood. She and her six children spent the night here, huddling together on the grimy pavement beneath torn old saris.
“Oh, it was so bad,” says the mother, who migrated to the capital from West Bengal in search of work. While she has earned enough here as a daily wage laborer to send all her children to school, she says she is unable to provide them shelter.
Kusum and her kids are among the estimated 150,000 people who sleep on streets and in parks of India's capital. Late last month, following a petition by a human rights group, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, which complained that the government had not taken adequate action this winter to help people like Kusum, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the Municipal Council of Delhi (MCD) must immediately set up night shelters for the city’s homeless.
MCD immediately opened 37 new shelters capable of holding 5,000 people, but this didn't end Kusum’s exhausting, icy nights and her anxiety for her children’s health. “I don’t know of any shelters – if I did we’d go to them,” she says.
Though India’s winters are brief – cold in December, but already warm by mid-February – the freezing cold nighttime temperatures frequently recorded in January are brutal for the homeless, especially those weakened by malnutrition. In Nizamuddin neighborhood on a recent morning, few people seemed to possess even a blanket.
Wretched poverty has always been evident in Delhi. But the problem of winter homelessness has been exacerbated this year by a cutback in government shelters and an surge in the number of people moving from the country to the city in search of work.
Only 24 government shelters were open most of this winter, compared to 46 last year, according to the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Raquel Rolnick. In a recent statement she said the dearth appeared to be linked to the city’s preparations for the Commonwealth Games, to which it plays host in October.
One shelter on a traffic island in south Delhi that housed 250 people was demolished, she said, “allegedly resulting in the death of two people.”
Staff and pupils of a nearby school, St. Michael’s, which is run by the Catholic archdiocese of Delhi, saw what had happened to the men and women evicted from that shelter and kept their classrooms open at night for them to sleep in.
“There was a great need that had to be addressed immediately,” says Father Dominic Emmanuel, communications director of the Catholic Archdiocese of Delhi. “And more people have come to stay every night.”
Paramjeet Kaur of Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan, one of the few charities dedicated to the homeless in Delhi, which operates 26 shelters, says activists will have to work hard to ensure the court ruling is followed.
“The Delhi government has opened new shelters,” she says, “but there needs to be much more of a partnership between the government and people who actually work with the homeless. We need funding and support.”
In the meantime, the MCD’s spokesman, Deep Mathur, says the 37 new shelters have doubled the city's capacity in night shelters to 10,000 persons. Each shelter provides free blankets, mats, drinking water, electricity, and newspapers. “It’s too soon after the court’s order to judge whether we have followed it properly,” he adds.
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