Over 2,40,000 homeless, not even 300 night shelters: Delhi is struggling to save its rough sleepers from the harsh winter

Rain Basera not only shelter homeless people, they double up as makeshift recovery wards for patients visiting the capital city’s overcrowded hospitals. But there aren’t nearly enough of them.

WrittenBy:Veena Nair
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Reshma lies in a white tent-like structure. Her stomach is slit open, a bag attached to it to collect her excreta. On December 4, she had surgery at Safdarjung Hospital. Her brother, Shoaib Qureshi, says she’s in pain but at least she has shelter. She’s in a Rain Basera set up by the Delhi government.

Rain Basera is a makeshift night shelter set up to keep the thousands of Delhi’s homeless people warm during the biting cold of Delhi’s winter. However, there’s another use to them. Every year, millions of people come to Delhi’s hospitals such as Safdarjung and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Overcrowded and lacking enough beds, hospitals often have to discharge patients immediately after surgery. For those with nowhere else to go, Rain Basera double up as outpatient recovery wards.

Shoeib Malick, a resident of Katihar, Bihar, says they have no choice but to stay in such shelters. “We have been getting surgery dates for two months,” he says. “We don’t have the money to go home and return.”

Malick is in one of 274 shelters set up by the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. Of these, 193 are permanent structures that stay open throughout the year, while the rest close on March 15. The shelters provide basic amenities such as blankets, water, cots, toilets and electricity. They help save potentially hundreds of homeless people from dying due to the cold. 

Last winter, at least 331 people died in Delhi in 45 days. This winter, the numbers might go higher. December 30 brought one of the coldest nights in 100 years to the capital, with the maximum temperature settling at 9 degrees Celsius. “In 2018, at least 235 people died in December alone. In December 2019, at least 254 deaths took place,” says Sunil Kumar Aledia, executive director of the Centre for Holistic Development, an NGO that works with the homeless people. 

Since their bodies aren’t usually sent for postmortem, Aledia adds, “it is our assumption that these many deaths have taken place because of winter. The temperature has dipped immensely. Most of the dead bodies we have found in North Delhi are labourers who sleep in the open, or people lying outside railway stations”.

However, Bipin Rai, a member of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, says these numbers are “manipulated”. “What is the credibility of their study?” he asks. “Sixteen of our rescue teams rescued 4,000 shelterless people from the roads. Every life matters to us.”

Rai says the board is focused on increasing the number of shelters this winter. “If we had 61 makeshift homes in 2018, we have 80 makeshift tents now. We had a budget of Rs 30 crore in 2019. If you look at the whole of Uttar Pradesh, you won’t find these many shelters.”

Aledia counters: “The 254 deaths are listed. We combine our list with a list formed by the Delhi police of unidentified bodies found across Delhi. It happens throughout the year but the number increases during extreme winters and summers. What does this say?”

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Night shelters provide basic amenities such as blankets, water, electricity and toilets.

The night shelters are run by NGOs which are expected to appoint three caretakers and three helpers for each. Mukesh Kumar, a caretaker at a permanent shelter near AIIMS, says, “I hardly get paid Rs 7,000 a month. Sometimes, for even a bulb, people staying here give me the money.”

Reshma, a resident of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh, has been staying in a Rain Basera for 15 days. She says the bathrooms are cleaned thrice a day, but are still dirty. “It’s people staying here who make it dirty. They clean their clothes, utensils and whatnot there.”

There are four shelters near AIIMS, three of them makeshift. They are always packed with patients, their relatives, and the homeless. Each space has about 45 beds. Nikhil Jha, a caretaker at one of the shelters, says anybody can get a bed if they show proof of identity, usually their Aadhaar card. Patients have to show their outpatient documents.

The permanent structure near AIIMS is a dilapidated aluminium building slotted with bunk beds. Women usually lie in the lower bunks and the men above.

Anjali Kumar from Ranchi, Jharkhand, lies in one of the lower beds. Her family’s sole breadwinner, she came to AIIMS to treat a tumour behind her eyes. The family took a loan of Rs 8,000 for her surgery. “I don’t know what to do if the money gets over,” her mother, Sita Munda, says. 

Anjali asks this correspondent, “Will I be all right? Can you help me?”

Aledia says there aren’t enough shelters for all of Delhi’s homeless people. There are over 2,46,800 homeless people in the capital city, according to the most recent study, conducted in 2011 by the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office. All the night shelters combined, however, can take merely 18,000 people a night, according to the Deputy Chief Minister’s Office.

Aledia also complains that the Delhi government is not following the National Urban Livelihoods Mission guidelines while setting up night shelters. “You need 1,000 square metres for every 1,00,000 people,” he explains. “The shelters require 19 lakh square metres now, but have only three lakh square metres. We go on the ground measuring such things and we use secondary sources like data from Ministry of Home Affairs.” 

Rai says it is difficult to get space to establish night shelters, makeshift or otherwise. “We write to AIIMS throughout the year saying we want to build a permanent shelter there. Patients always need space to stay there. We never get permission.”

Many people who need the shelters don’t use them, or even know about them. This reporter found the family of Mohit Sharma, 12, in the subway near AIIMs. Mohit was hit in the face by a ball. His eyes are now swollen, his eyeballs bulging out of his face. His family had got an appointment at AIIMS for two days later, and had no idea about Rain Basera.

Then there’s Rita Pravesh, who lives under a footbridge with her husband, daughter and grandchildren. “We don’t go to the shelter, they ask for ID cards,” she explains. “This is our home. If we leave, it will go away.” She says they want their own home, not a temporary place to stay.

This is also why Nizamuddin’s Rain Basera is empty, even on the coldest night of the year. There are some longtime residents though: Suggi has been living in the shelter with his family for five years. “I could never afford to build a house of my own,” he rues. “I earn barely Rs 200 a day and I use that money to feed my family.”

Adnan Hussain, a Rain Basera caretaker, says rescue teams are out every night, from 10 pm to 4 am, encouraging homeless people to go to a shelter. “They don’t want to come. We try persuading them but in vain,” he claims. “They stay outside, hoping to get blankets from people who come in their cars.”


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