It’s a combination of inadequate shelters, poor facilities, and an apathetic administration.
On a footpath adjacent to a busy road in suburban Mumbai, Baban, 54, prepares to sleep on a mat laid on the ground. This has been his makeshift home since 2011, much like the pavement on the other side of the road.
“When they shoo us from there, we come here,” he said. “And when they shoo us from here, we go there.”
Baban is one among the 2,10,908 homeless people in Maharashtra, according to the 2011 census. At the time of the survey, Mumbai, India’s most populous city, recorded 57,416 homeless people.
However, a survey from last year, commissioned by the state government and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, said there were only 21,000 homeless people in the state, of whom 11,915 were in Mumbai – a gross underestimation, according to those working in the development sector.
Yet an equally serious mismatch lies in the number of permanent shelters in Maharashtra to serve the urban homeless. Maharashtra has 70, according to the Directorate of Municipal Administration. Mumbai has 19, of which only 10 meet prescribed guidelines.
In stark contrast, Maharashtra’s requirement is 218 shelters and Mumbai’s is 125, 12 times more than what it currently possesses.
Importantly, in the last three years, the central government hasn’t released funds to the state government for the construction of these shelters because the Maharashtra government has underutilised funds already available with it.
As a result, the city’s homeless have to deal with a multifold problem: inadequate shelters, poor facilities in those that exist, and an apathetic administration that isn’t spending money that it has available for this very purpose.
Unspent funds and passing the buck
Across states, permanent shelters for the urban homeless are constructed under the central government’s Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme, or SUH, a part of the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission. Started in 2013, the scheme is 60 percent funded by the central government and, in most cases, 40 percent by the states. One shelter, which can accommodate at least 100 people, must be constructed for every lakh of the urban population, according to the scheme’s guidelines.
Each permanent shelter should be equipped with access to essential services, such as adequate toilet facilities, water arrangements, and fire protection measures, and must have well-ventilated rooms with a common kitchen or cooking space. Various NGOs are then designated to run the shelters under the scheme.
In Maharashtra, the shelters come under the purview of the Directorate of Municipal Administration. Funds are released from the Centre to the state urban development department, which then sends them to the DMA, which in turn allocates them to urban local bodies.
On February 11, housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri was asked in the Lok Sabha about the quantum of funds released to Maharashtra for the construction of shelter homes for the urban homeless. Puri replied that no funds have been released to the state from 2017-18 to 2019-20 “due to high unspent balance available to Maharashtra”.
Newslaundry confirmed this with the DMA’s office too.
But how much is this “unspent balance”?
According to data from the DMA’s office, in 2015-16, Maharashtra had an unspent balance of Rs 598.31 crore from the funds it received from the Centre under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission. A major chunk of these funds – Rs 323.85 crore – was the backlog of the balance allotted by the Centre for the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana scheme at the time of closing in 2014-15.
Funds allocated under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission are spent on employment through skill training and placement, self-employment programmes, social mobilisation and institutional development, support to urban street vendors, capacity building and training programmes, and the Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme.
By 2019-20, Rs 559.63 crore out of the Rs 598.31 crore balance was spent under the NULM scheme. The remaining amount of Rs 38.68 crore was spent in 2020-21. The DMA’s office, as well as the Supreme Court-appointed task force that monitors the working of the scheme, say that funds were delayed in 2020 due to the pandemic, and allocated by the Centre around November. Maharashtra received Rs 49 crore, and has applied for a fresh grant for the new financial year.
Brijesh Arya, who works with several NGOs in Mumbai to ensure the rights of the homeless, said state and municipal bodies don’t have the will to implement the Shelter for Urban Homeless scheme in the state, which he described as a “total failure” in Maharashtra.
“The problem lies with the state and municipal corporations,” said Arya, who is also part of the Supreme Court-appointed state level shelter monitoring committee in Maharashtra. “But in the administrative chaos, it’s the homeless who are suffering.”
Dr Kiran Kulkarni, commissioner and director of the DMA, told Newslaundry that the issue is being “analysed”, and passed the buck to the urban local bodies.
“According to me, the pendency of proposals at the DMA level is very less,” Kulkarni said. “There is a need to rush proposals at the urban local body levels.”
So, Kulkarni said, the DMA plans to issue guidelines to the urban local bodies, set up training programmes, and assess the unique problems at various bodies, as well as involve divisional commissioners and collectors to get the job done. He also said the DMA aims for a “holistic, five-step approach” towards Mumbai’s urban homeless, including rehabilitation and skill development.
Covid disrupted most of the DMA’s plans, according to the commissioner, who took on the position two months ago.
Lack of space
The fallout of this is borne by the NGOs that run the shelters on the government’s behalf in Maharashtra. According to guidelines under the Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme, each shelter must provide 50 sq ft per person. However, due to Covid and the subsequent lockdown, many shelters were forced to take in more people than their capacity. As a result, their rooms are cramped, as they struggle with lack of space and lack of funds.
“We have not received the 2019-2020 funds yet. If we are not given funds, how will we run the shelters properly?” said Anand Nirmale, manager of Dharamshala, a shelter run by NGO Niradhar in Mumbai’s Bandra, under the Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme. “The authorities show no sense of responsibility towards this.”
The shelter was started in 2013 and caters to youth aged 18 to 25, specifically those from orphanages who need a place to live once they turn 18. It houses nine people in a single room and is always full, according to Anand, who said the shelter cannot meet the requirement of 50 sq ft per inmate unless they receive adequate funds.
“The administrative body barely moves,” he said, “and the politicians just talk about their parties. Nobody talks about the system.”
However, the issue hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. In 2017, a Supreme Court-appointed panel said that over 90 percent of India’s urban homeless had no roof over their heads because “state governments had failed miserably” in setting up shelters with the funds provided by the Centre. Maharashtra was named as one of the worst performers.
The apex court had also directed the constitution of state-level monitoring committees to monitor the progress of the Shelter for Urban Homeless Scheme.
According to data on the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission website, Maharashtra’s state-level shelter monitoring committee met only 12 times since its formation in 2018. Ujjwal Uke, the chairman of the committee, told Newslaundry that they have been putting pressure on the state administrative body and the urban local bodies to build more shelters.
According to Uke, Mumbai’s high population and lack of space has posed a “peculiar problem” for setting up urban shelters.
“We have been telling local bodies to think out of the box, to look at alternatives such as setting up shelters above mandis and markets,” he said. In Matunga, for example, a shelter has set up bunk beds instead of regular beds to accommodate more inmates.
Another issue lies in the fact that not all the shelters counted under the scheme cater to the entire population, which is a violation of the scheme’s guidelines. Some accept only children, or women and girls. While Dr Sangita Hasnale, assistant commissioner of the BMC remained unavailable for comment, she had talked about this during an interview to the Indian Express in 2019.
“I agree with the fact that the existing shelter homes are specialised ones and the organisations operating them take only children, girls or women,” Hasnale had said. “The problem is, when we had invited expression of interest for operating these shelter homes, we got response from organisations that were ready to operate them for specific people only.”
As a result, Hasnale had said, the BMC was trying to set up more shelters that would be available for all.
‘Nobody does anything’
A little over a kilometre away from the Directorate of Municipal Administration’s office in Worli is a footpath that is the makeshift home for 10-15 urban homeless people. The slums they once lived in were razed years ago, and they had nowhere else to go.
The footpath isn’t safe either; every day, employees of the BMC gather their belongings and urge them to leave.
“When we tell them to do something for us, they have nothing to say,” said Prabha, 44, who lives on the footpath with her family.
Uke admitted that this is a “very immediate and human problem”.
“The sun will set and if I don’t know where to go for the night...I can say there will be a shelter in 10 months or so, but once the sun sets, I can’t tell [a homeless person] to wait for 10 months, right?” he said.
Harish Chandra Paati, 63, has also made the street his home, just a few metres away from Prabha. “The BMC shoos us off the street daily,” he said. “If we create trouble, the police come as well.”
Anil Shubash Sansari, 50, told Newslaundry he’s lived his entire life on the streets of Mumbai. He may have to pack up his makeshift home on a pavement in Andheri’s DN Nagar due to the ongoing metro construction.
Did the change in government in Maharashtra in 2019 make a difference to his life?
“What difference does it make? Nobody does anything,” Sansari said. “People just come, speak and go. These schemes are just something to say and hear.”
Poonam, who lives on the streets like Sansari, cradled her six-month-old son, Ashish, in her lap as she spoke. “We don’t have jobs,” she said. “We don’t have anything.”