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22 April 2024

India's poor scramble from cold as homeless shelters close

Barefoot and carrying a thin pillow and two soiled rugs, Kunj Bihari ushers his wife and three children inside a night shelter where New Delhi's homeless seek protection from the winter weather.

But authorities refuse to let them stay, saying there is no room inside the makeshift plastic tents hastily erected by the government near a crematorium.

"This happens every night. We have to search for hours to find a warm place to sleep," said Bihari, who sells balloons and pens during the day.

Life for India's poorest is a grim struggle for survival, but the unusually cold winter this year has made sleeping on the streets a potentially deadly ordeal.

In the last two weeks more than 300 people have died of cold in north India, government officials say, as hundreds of thousands sleep in the open with nothing more than thin blankets to keep them warm.

Many huddle over small fires burning scrap wood, tyres and rubbish to generate a little heat.

Charity workers in the Indian capital have accused authorities of worsening the suffering by shutting down dozens of night shelters at a time when the city's homeless most need protection from the elements.

Some of the closures are part of comprehensive redevelopment plans under way ahead of the Commonwealth Games in October, though the government says it is arranging substitute facilities.

"Poor people die in the cold snap. The government has still not woken up to save them," said Miloon Kothari, of charity Urban Rights Forum: For the Homeless.

"The homeless urban poor in this country are marginalised, labelled as encroachers and often accused of making the city's appearance ugly."

An acute shortage of state-run night shelters has forced more than 100,000 people in Delhi alone to shiver through the night on pavements, below flyovers and around religious sites.

"It is a shame. At one end, we spend millions of rupees to beautify the city, make fancy accommodation for ministers, while at the other end we have nothing for the poor," Kothari said.

"There seems to be no balance and no dignity."

A majority of the homeless are manual labourers who have migrated to urban centres from their villages in search of employment. After a day at work earning as little as 150 rupees (three dollars), they bed down wherever they can avoid the attention of the police or criminal gangs.

"The poor are beaten by the police if they sleep on the road, there are no night shelters made for them. Should they vanish into thin air?" asked Uma Nath, an aid worker who provides temporary shelter for the urban poor.

Activists said the number of temporary night shelters in Delhi fell from 46 to 24 in the last year despite an increase in the number of homeless.

Winter temperatures in the city are hardly extreme -- rarely dropping below four degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit) -- but still lives have been lost.

"Who cares for us? We might as well die in the cold," said 45-year-old Ramnek Dhua, a labourer, while sitting outside a tent.

Dhua's wife and children were not allowed to sleep in the men's night shelter as authorities feared for her safety.

"But I can be raped more easily when I sleep out on the road," said Dhua's wife Janatika, covering her arms with threadbare old clothes.

The family's woes were accentuated in December when Delhi's municipal rulers tore down one large night shelter, where 300 people could sleep, as part of a park renovation scheme ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

Human rights activists protested against the demolition and accused the government of putting cosmetic improvements above human life.

"The government hates their presence. The poor contribute nothing to the economy, and people say they dent the city's international image by displaying grim poverty on every road," said Nath.

But city authorities challenged allegations made by activists and said they were doling out firewood and blankets, and putting relief measures in place as the cold snap was forecast to continue.

"We will soon make shelters and provide blankets and television in all these centres to make the poor comfortable," said Deep Mathur, spokesman for the Delhi Municipal Corporation

"Right now, we are setting up tents to help people in the short term.”


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